Abstract Expressionism: A book review by Bob Morris

Abstract Expressionism (Basic Art Series 2.0)
Barbara Hess; Edited by Uta Grosenick
Taschen (March 2016)

Here ia “a fast-food, high-energy fix on the topic at hand.” The New York Times

This is one of several dozen volumes in the Basic Art series published by Taschen. Barbara Hess focuses on 23 of those now known as “Abstract Expressionists” and/or “the first generation of the New York School.” Many referred to themselves as “the Erascibles.”

Opinions are divided about the nature and extent of impact that abstract expressionism has had. Indeed, disagreements continue even now as to what the term means. Hess points out that the expression first turned up (in German) in an issue of Der Sturm magazine in 1919. I tend to agree with Willem de Kooning’s response, when Albert Barr (former director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art) demanded one: “It is disastrous to name ourselves.”

Be that as it may, I praise everyone involved with the creation of this book on the high quality of its text, sources, organization, and production values.  The mini-bios are remarkably substantial and the selection of individual works to complement them is superb. I also appreciate the observations provided by individual artists. For example:

o “It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

o “The stuff of thought is the seed of the artist. Dreams form the bristle of the artist’s brush.” Arshile Gorky (1904-1948)

o “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)

o “I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.” Jackson Pollock (1922-1956)

o “There are as many images as there are eyes to see.” Sam Francis (1923-1994)

o “Aesthetics is for the artists like ornithology is for the birds.” Barnett Newman (1905-1970)

o “My favorite symbols were those which I did not understand.” Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974)

o “Thew thing is that a person who wants to explore painting naturally reflects: ‘how can I in my work be most expressive?’ Then the form develops.” Franz Kline (1910-1962)

o “My painting is not an allegory, it is not a story. It is more like a poem.” Joan Mitchell (1926-1992)

o “I take an elegy to be a funeral song for something one cared about. The [200+] Spanish Elegies are not ‘political’, but are my private insistence that that a terrible death happened that should not be forgot. They are as eloquent as I could make them. But the pictures are also general metaphors of the contrast between life and death and their interrelation.” Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

I commend Barbara Hess on her brilliant introduction. Its title, “A Constant Searching of Onerself,” is certainly true of the artists she discusses in this volume and I am among those who, when interacting with their works, also feel challenged and inspired to sustain our own journey for self-discovery.



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