Willem De Kooning, Untitled (Woman in Forest), ca. 1963–64. Oil on paper, mounted on Masonite, 73.7 x 86.4 cm. Private collection © The Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York /VEGAP, Bilbao, 2016.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents Abstract Expressionism , an ambitious selection of works by the artists who spearheaded a major shift and new apogee in painting in New York which began in the 1940’s. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, David Smith, and Clyfford Still are just some of the artists in the show, which brings together more than 130 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs from public and private collections all over the world. This exhibition sheds new light on Abstract Expressionism, a diverse, complex, and multifaceted phenomenon which is often erroneously viewed as a unified whole.
Back in the years of free jazz and the poetry of the Beat generation, with the Second World War as the backdrop, a group of artists broke with the established conventions and ushered in a movement which was born of a shared artistic and life experience, even though they each had their own style. Unlike the Cubism and Surrealism which predated it, Abstract Expressionism refuses to be bound by any formula and is instead a celebration of individual diversity and freedom of expression.
Characteristics of this movement include works on a colossal scale which are sometimes intense, spontaneous, and extraordinarily expressive, while other times they are more contemplative through the use of vast color fields. These creations redefined the nature of painting and aspired not only to be admired from afar but also to be enjoyed in two-way encounters between the artist and the viewer. Just as the artists express their emotions and convey the sense that these emotions are brought into the work, the viewer’s perception is the last step in this interaction. Thus, “Abstract painting is abstract. If confronts you,” as Jackson Pollock stated in 1950. Furthermore, the intensity of this encounter could be further accentuated by the way the works are displayed, as exemplified in the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
The early years of Abstract Expressionism reflect the ill-fated era in which the movement materialized, a time that was marred by two World Wars and the Great Depression. This can be seen in the sinister skeletons of Jackson Pollock’s series Untitled Panels A – D (1934–38), the architecture depicted by Mark Rothko in Interior (1936), and the Philip Guston work The Porch (1946–47), where the human figure seems to be threatened and takes on a macabre tone clearly influenced by the Holocaust. In the 1940’s, these connotations evolved towards a more universal language which included the creation of myths such as Idolatress I (1944) by Hans Hofmann (1942–43), archetypes such as Pollock’s totemic Male and Female , and primitivistic forms such as the savage biomorphs of Richard Pousette-Dart’s Undulation (ca. 1941–42). Willem de Kooning conferred a subjective sensitivity on abstract motifs in Untitled (1939–40), while in their collaborative piece Untitled (1940–41), William Baziotes, Gerome Kamrowski, and Pollock showcase another popular trend of allowing the paint to flow almost at whim.
Arshile Gorky’s (Armenia, 1904 –Connecticut, 1948) importance stemmed from his in-depth knowledge of art history, which he conveyed to his protégé De Kooning, coupled with his ability to fuse trends like Cubism and Surrealism to create a new syntax. This hybrid language appeared early on in Untitled (Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia) (ca. 1931–32), which evokes the proto-Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.
Gorky later revealed his talent as a master of color and line, and between 1944 and 1945 he reached his peak with paintings like Water of the Flowery Mill (1944) and The Unattainable (1945). Tragic events, like the fire in his studio and a traffic accident which almost cost him his life, made Gorky’s art take on a cold, elegiac tone, as seen in The Limit and The Orators , both from 1947, until his tragic death in 1948.
Willem de Kooning
De Kooning (Rotterdam, 1904 - New York, 1997) was the master of the gesture as a reflection ofraw emotion. His paintings swayed between abstraction and figuration, creating explosive, rebellious effects. After an early obsession with female eroticism, he went on to explore another dimension. His 1949 work Zot (which means “demented” in Dutch) conceals a condensed dramatic quality in which vestiges of the figure and other details clash with and blur into each other.
From the same period, Abstraction (1949–50) revealed the potent religious symbolism that permeated the artist’s iconography, which spans from lust and perdition to salvation, making it a modern take on the reflections on the human condition rendered by the masters of classical painting.
Representations of females were a constant feature in de Kooning’s oeuvre, although by the 1960’s they took a turn towards the grotesque, while he simultaneously made these women more accessible, such as in Woman as Landscape (1965–66). De Kooning contrasted the febrile universe of female sexuality with the chaos of the modern city in what the artist called feelings of “leaving the city or returning to it.” Thus, in Villa Borghese (1960) and Untitled (1961), the strips of pastel hues exude an air of freedom, in line with the enjoyment and serenity that the artist got from nature. And in the 1970’s, his style became more fluid and contemplative, as can be seen in the work ...Whose Name Was Written in Water (1975), in which the use of paint diluted with oil yielded longer and more gestural brushstrokes.
By the time he held his first solo show in 1950, Franz Kline (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 1910 – New York, 1962) revealed a mature oeuvre in which he explored black and white in contradictory configurations and violent imbalances, creating images that were at once architectural and poetic. The titles of Franz Kline’s works summon a universe made up of people and spaces from the industrial and mining region of Pennsylvania, where he was born, along with romantic reminiscences of Europe, such as Requiem (1958), in which Kline depicts an ominous world. Even though his monochromatic brushstrokes look spontaneous, his technique was among the most deliberate of all the Abstract Expressionists. Kline, who often created his paintings based on drawings, worked at night and used diluted commercial paints and thick brushes, as in Untitled from 1952, one of his most celebrated works. Shortly before his premature death, he managed to achieve extraordinary horizontal dynamism and once again introduced an almost fluorescent glow which stressed the bravado of his large-scale dramas, as seen in Andrus , named after the doctor who treated his heart disease.
The paintings that Mark Rothko (Daugavpils, Russia [now Latvia], 1903–New York, 1970) made in the 1950’s and 1960’s perfectly capture his zeal for creating abstract personifications of powerful human feelings such as tragedy, ecstasy, and fatality, as the artist himself explained. Instantly recognizable, Rothko’s floating rectangles have inspired countless interpretations, such as that they replace the human presence, that they abstractly and sublimely symbolize the landscape, and that they express moods.
By eliminating any trace of narrative from his compositions, which are simple in appearance, he clears the path to a more direct emotional response to the image. Rothko called his paintings “façades,” a term that refers to both the frontality with which the works confront the viewer and their enigmatic hypnotism, given that by definition façades both reveal and conceal at the same time. The auras which sometimes surround the color fields give them a luminous halo and a strange mix of stillness and drama, such as in the large “wall of light,” Untitled , from 1952-53, which is part of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection.
Even though Rothko created more colorful or darker canvases at different stages in his life, after 1957 his works primarily veered toward darkness. The paintings displayed here span from his early exploration of light to his later relationship with shadows.
Jackson Pollock (Cody, Wyoming, 1912–Springs, New York, 1956) is regarded as the leading practitioner of Abstract Expressionism. With the giant mural that he painted for the home of the collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim in 1943, he reached a milestone in the history of early Abstract Expressionism, paving the way for both Rothko and Gorky to produce their largest paintings the following year. His
Mural (1943), which combines bold paint application with a colossal size, gave Pollock the confidence to explore the painting process on the huge surfaces in Portrait of HM (1945) and Night Mist (1945), until he reached his characteristic style in 1947–1950.
With the untreated canvas spread over the ground, Pollock poured and splattered his pigments with surprising control, creating labyrinths that followed the rhythm of his body and suggested both a kind of mental script and muscular release. Pollock described these extraordinary tracings as “energy and motion made visible, memories arrested in space.” Perhaps the most striking feature is how Pollock’s extraordinarily personal style was anything but a constraint and instead managed to generate such a wide range of effects.
Traumatized by Pollock’s death in the summer of 1956 it took his wife Lee Krasner until 1960 to wrestle with his formidable ghost. The outcome was the bounding rhythms and arcing vectors of The Eye Is the First Circle . As such, this monumental canvas ranks as perhaps the most memorable single tribute to Pollock’s seismic achievement. A similar sense of inward immensity marks the almost micrographic fields that Krasner and the Ukrainian-American artist Janet Sobel crafted in the late 1940s. In turn, Sobel’s fusion of the micro- and macrocosmic most likely impressed Pollock and influenced his subsequent adoption of the “all-over” painting style. Similarly Robert Motherwell, whose more than 200 Elegies to the Spanish Republic (1965–75) are contemplative; the version in this gallery in particular was inspired by Pollock’s Mural , doubling as a memorial to that artist. Smith’s sculpture Tanktotem III (1953) evokes a prancing bestial presence spun out of Mural into three dimensions.
Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt
Two artists with such different backgrounds and temperaments like Barnet Newman (New York, 1905 – New York, 1970) and Ad Reinhardt (Buffalo, New York, 1913 – New York, 1967) took color to the limit, and their decorative and sensorial associations tended towards the absolute. By the late 1940’s, Newman had established his two main painting motifs: thin vertical lines, also known as zips, which were used to create focal points, and the range of bright colors that these lines organized. In Galaxy (1949), Newman suggests an embryonic cosmos, while in Eve (1950) and Adam (1951–52) , the lines combined with earthy browns and reds take on an organic aura, as if the couple were announcing an act of creation. In Ulysses (1952) and Profile of Light (1967), blue evokes the immensity of the ocean in the former and a transcendental sublimity in the latter.
Reinhardt, in turn, takes the rectangle as the basic element of painting in order to condense the chroma, or the apparent saturation of the colors, to the utmost. The reds and blues he created in the 1950’s led to a darkness that hinted at the idea of emptiness and the irrevocable. After 1953, Reinhardt only made “black” paintings, sensing that he had managed to strip art down to its purest essence. Yet despite their monochromatic appearance, these works are actually made up of grids painted in saturated tones of red, blue, and green, in a hypnotic interaction that tests the limits of vision.
Even though Abstract Expressionism has its roots in New York, its sphere of influence spread to artists on the U.S. West coast as well, such as Sam Francis (San Mateo, California, 1923–Santa Monica, California, 1994).
During the 1950s, Francis’s work shifted from almost monochromatic compositions dense with corpuscular motifs to others glowing with rich hues and, finally, an uplifted openness evoking rarefied, empyrean voids. Outpacing neat categories that sometimes pigeonhole the Abstract Expressionists into “colour-field” artists versus “gesturalists”, Guston, Joan Mitchell and the young Helen Frankenthaler evolved their own respective visual palimpsests by the second half of the 1950s.
Mitchell’s Salut Tom is an apotheosis wherein sunlight and shade contend. The quadriptych format probably recalls Monet’s enveloping Nymphéas’ as it aggrandizes the artist’s faith in the “landscape I carry around inside me”. Again, though, the sentiment is valedictory: the title commemorates the critic Thomas B. Hess, who championed Abstract Expressionism. Whether in Guston’s lush yet fragile impasto, Mitchell’s fleet, tactile brushwork or Frankenthaler’s lyrical oil washes that sketch myths and memories as they permeate the canvas, each artist created their own unique fusion of colour and gesture.
More A “Phenomenon” Than A “Movement”
In its late phase, the Abstract Expressionists went in different directions, faithful to their individualism. Some artists embraced darkness, like Motherwell in the work In Plato’s Cave No. 1 (1972). Tworkov’s gravely meditative Idling II (1970) makes a tacit yet eloquent complement to his friend Rothko’s stern visual endgame, the latter works sealed by their distancing white borders. Mark Tobey’s works are imbued with spirituality. In Parnassus (1963), dynamic black lines show the influence of Zen calligraphy on Tobey, whose “white writing” ended up becoming his hallmark. Other artists explored more luminous terrains, such as William Baziotes and his watery world, in which phantasms sporting tentacles roam through phosphorescent depths. Their mythic cast – redolent with deep time and primitivism – recalls Abstract Expressionism’s early interests, now writ large, while the opalescent textures intimate a universe glimpsed distantly in the mind’s eye. Guston, in turn, went back to his origins by painting figurative images in the late 1950’s, which earned him fierce criticism that led him to retire from the art world.
Guston’s figuration, which is present in his early work, is revisited here in Low Tide (1976), where the waters of abstraction ebb to reveal unsettling fragments. Simultaneously hobnail heels and parodies of the letter “omega” – the last in the Greek alphabet – Guston’s quiet apocalypse also doubles as timely pictorial metaphor. Ominous orbs rise / set on the ruddy Abstract Expressionist horizon.
The critic Harold Rosenberg’s definition of Abstract Expressionism as “action painting” in 1952 excluded photography. However, Aaron Siskind had close ties to the Abstract Expressionist painters, as did Minor White, who taught alongside Clyfford Still for many years. The bold marks, graffiti, and textures captured by Siskind and other photographers like Frederick Sommer share the same expressive concern with violence, darkness, and immediacy that we find in the Abstract Expressionists’ paintings. Harry Callahan, Herbert Matter (a close friend of Pollock), the prolific Albanian-born ‘Life’ photographer Gjon Mili, and Barbara Morgan all conjured up abstract ideograms and swift motion that match the painters’ goals. The most influential photographic images include the ones by Hans Namuth portraying Pollock in action, which were used to expand the limited, hierarchical definition of Abstract Expressionism.
Clyfford Still (Grandin, North Dakota, 1904–Baltimore, Maryland, 1980) was always a diehard outsider. He remained close to the immensity of the western U.S. and only lived in New York for 12 of his 75 years. This geographic distance from the center of art tinged his originality. He was gifted at drawing, had extensive knowledge of art history, and was a fan of some of the great masters. This paradoxically kindled Still’s radicalism, as heralded in PH - 235 (1944), one of the early milestones in Abstract Expressionism. Beginning in dispersed landscapes, verticality became the main theme in his oeuvre through either extremely thin “lifelines” or imposing monoliths. Still associated verticality with the uprightness of the erect being and spiritual transcendence, whose opposite was the yawning abyss. Thus, his work wages a battle between luminosity and darkness, somehow merging life and death. For the first time, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, which holds 95% of the artist’s work, will loan nine major paintings to the exhibition, establishing the artist at the very forefront of Abstract Expressionism.
David Smith (in several galleries)
In 1934, David Smith (Decatur, Indiana, 1906 - Vermont, 1965) began to weld metal sculptures using an oxyacetylene torch; these were probably the first welded-metal sculptures made in the United Estates. He soon discovered Terminal Iron Works, a commercial welding operation on the Brooklyn Waterfront. Smith is the leading sculptor from the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, and his ideas and visual universe echo the concerns of the movement as a whole. The sculptures scattered about different galleries represent the oeuvre Smith produced from the late 1940’s until his premature death in 1965, and they evince the constant interaction between the sculptor and the painters. Some of his works explore upright forms that abstractly evoke the human presence, while others are more austere, sometimes mechanistic and other times architectural, such as the dazzling stainless steel surfaces of Cubi XXVII (1965).