On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

ROTHKO'S SURREALIST YEARS 1981

In the beginning was the Big Bang theory of Abstract Expressionism. By the 1950s, everyone on both sides of the Atlantic knew that something so drastic and overwhelming had happened in New York in the late 1940s that "The New American Painting"--to use the Museum of Modern Art's title for its international traveling exhibition of 1958-59--seemed to have mythical origins, forged of thunder and lightning. The signature styles of the masters of this new art appeared so extreme in their distillations of primordial elements-- energy, color, atmosphere, even the brink of nothingness--that they made one gasp in their willingness to jettison, so it seemed, the entire baggage of Western painting. But after absorbing the impact of what first looked like totally unfamiliar art, spectators and historians became more curious about how these heroic images of rock-bottom purity came into being. For those who wished to support the stunning visual evidence that the grand tradition of European modernism had suddenly crossed the Atlantic, like an American Athena sprung full grown from the head of a European Zeus, sweeping new genealogies could be constructed. For instance, the floating, expansive colors of Rothko, Newman, and Still might be seen as belonging to a dynasty founded by such ancestors as Matisse and the later Monet; and the crackling, dark-light structure of de Kooning, Kline, and Pollock might be read as an electrifying transmutation of the scaffoldings that underlay Analytic Cubism. Similarly, in broader cultural terms, the transcendental vistas and breast-beating individuality of many of the Abstract Expressionists could be located as the most recent manifestations of the legacy of Romanticism.

But what was amazingly slow in permeating our view of this new art was the fact that its origins were not the equivalent of cosmic explosion, but the product rather of a long, slow generative process. So exciting was what looked like the swift emergence of a grand, mature American style that we ignored and were even embarrassed by what was thought of as an awkward incubation period. Judging from birth dates alone, it was obvious that most of the major Abstract Expressionists were only a little younger than the century itself, and that in the late 1940s, when their art seemed to be born, they already were in their forties. But what on earth had they been doing before that? Occasionally, historical surveys would include illustrations of a few "premature" works, in order to fill quickly the gap of decades--the 1930s and the early 1940s--in our knowledge of these masters, but usually they raced ahead to 1947-50, when the action really began. The situation was comparable to the mid-twentieth-

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