The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism

The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism

The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism

The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism


I have the loftiest idea, and the most passionate one, of art. Much too lofty to agree to subject it to anything. Much too passionate to want to divorce it from anything.

Albert Camus, Notebooks 1942-1951

CONVERSATIONS and interviews with dozens of artists have supplied much of the basic material for this history of Abstract Expressionism. Firsthand contacts with most of the leading figures of the movement have, hopefully, made it possible for this book to reflect "the sympathy of a man who stands in the midst and sees like one within, not like one without, like a native, not like an alien," to cite Woodrow Wilson's conception of the historian's role.

The recollections of the artists, corroborated by other available documents, including formal statements, public letters, records of meetings, symposia, and lectures, reveal their artistic intentions. Knowledge of the aims and beliefs of the Abstract Expressionists is of prime importance, for it illuminates the actual evolution of their styles.

In response to World War II and the intellectual climate generated by it, the future Abstract Expressionists came to believe that they faced a crisis in subject matter. Prevailing ideologies -- socialist, nationalist, and Utopian - and the styles identified with them -- Social Realism, Regionalism, and geometric abstraction -- lost credibility in their eyes. Unwilling to continue known directions or to accept any other dogma, the Abstract Expressionists turned to their own private visions and insights in an anxious search for new values. The urgent need for meanings that felt truer to their experience gave rise to new ways of seeing -- to formal innovations.

The broader attributes of this process of stylistic change have been ignored by formalist writers on art, whose point of view came to dominate art criticism during the 1960's. These writers narrowed their interpretation to formal problems, avoiding any analysis of content. Their underlying premise was that advanced artists conceive new styles by rejecting recently established styles that have become outworn through overuse. The implication here is that the artistic vanguard is motivated primarily by formalist considerations. To be sure, the Abstract Expressionists schooled themselves in older styles, assimilating the traditions of modern art more thoroughly than artists of their generation elsewhere in the world. In so doing, they were able to avoid repeating visually exhausted ideas and to venture in fresh directions. However, their preoccupation was with investing forms with meanings that relate to the whole of human experience, and any critical approach that does not consider these meanings is misleading.

Philip Guston, in a seemingly paradoxical remark made during the 1950's, underscored the contrasting attitudes of formalist criticism and Abstract Expressionisim, stating that in the future some artists would be looked upon as great formalists but that those who set out to be formalists would be dismissed entirely. Indeed, this book deals with artists' intentions precisely in order to capture the embryonic period in the development of their styles -- before they were assimilated into art history -- the time when, in Eug2ène Ionesco's words, artists are . . .

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