Abstract Expressionist New York
The Museum of Modern Art
Oct. 3, 2010 — April 25, 2011
It looks simple enough. A large canvas, evenly coated in deep burgundy, with some sparse vertical stripes in muted colors. The painting is Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51), and he created it as a profound expression of his life-long anarchist politics. As Newman once said about his artwork, “if…others could read it properly it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.”
Vir Heroicus Sublimis is one of many works on view at “Abstract Expressionist New York,” a sprawling show at the Museum of Modern Art that seeks to provide not just an overview of Abstract Expressionism in general — those artists who famously explored the evocative potential of unadulterated form, line and color — but also an image of their New York City milieu (Abstract Expressionism was arguably not so much an American art form as a New York art form). It’s an impressive and overwhelming show, filled with big, beautiful paintings: there’s Jackson Pollock’s show-stopping One, Number 31, 1950 (1950), with a loping, flailing rhythm that seems almost cosmic, and there are Mark Rothko canvases with their buzzing, luminous, open spaces.
You can learn a lot at this show, but you won’t learn too much about the political origins of Abstract Expressionism, not to mention the fact that many of these artists cut their teeth through the New Deal’s Federal Art Project. For example, Pollock began his career making floats and banners for Communist Party demonstrations, and many others joined communist arts organizations like the American Artists’ Congress and the Artists Union.
These politics are not readily visible in the artwork — they weren’t meant to be. By the time they turned to purely abstract art, the Abstract Expressionists had largely given up on the organized left, having been thoroughly disillusioned by the brutality of the Soviet Union, the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, and the closed-circuit nature of American communist groups. But, that doesn’t mean politics weren’t still informing their artwork. As art historian Annette Cox wrote in her 1982 book Art-as-Politics: The Abstract Expressionist Avant-Garde and Society, “in the eyes of the Abstract Expressionists, modernism was a necessary choice for a culture whose traditional subjects and forms had been exhausted. … They sought to create a modernist art that echoed the radical commitment most of them had shared during the Depression.”
The Abstract Expressionists were heavily influenced by Freudian and Surrealist concepts of the subconscious: by relying on an intuitive approach to art, they were trying to create something intimately, uniquely human. Their sharp turn inward towards human emotion and psychology was (at least partly) a bid to create a new, less-destructive society based on the fundamental truths of human experience.
It may be a stretch, but it’s possible to see a political lexicon seeping into these artworks. Rothko’s paintings look like fields of pure light, but they also look like flags. Adolph Gottlieb’s arresting Blast, I (1957), with its clearly partitioned glyphs of quotidian struggle and explosive, red divinity, feels like a propaganda poster.
For the most part, though, this stuff doesn’t look political, which means that it can easily get co-opted. As early as 1952, the CIA was mounting Abstract Expressionist exhibitions, with abstract paintings meant to serve as an example of American cultural supremacy during the Cold War.
It doesn’t help that the Abstract Expressionists exhibited a macho, boy’s club aura. Many of the artists were deeply invested in a cult of individualistic heroism, expressing what critic Renato Poggioli called “spiritual megalomania.” Clyfford Still (whose crackling, melancholy paintings are a highlight of the MoMA show), opined that “a single stroke of paint … could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apologies and devices for subjugation.”
But without left politics, this artwork wouldn’t exist at all. Political convictions are just one of the many things that inform these paintings — they are not works of activism or some sort of densely-coded propaganda. But to look at them apolitically would be incomplete.
The Museum of Modern Art, with its wealthy backers and broad audience, is vague about politics. Despite this, readers of this article can go to the museum, check out the show, and think about politics the whole damn time.