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3.4: Abstract Expressionism

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    3.4 Abstract Expressionism

    Abstract Expressionism is a school of painting that flourished after World War II until the early 1960s, characterized by the view that art is nonrepresentational and chiefly improvisational. Abstract Expressionism develops out of many different ideas and influences. Some of these influences come from contact between the New York based artists who meet leading European artists who have escaped from war-torn Europe arriving in New York. World War II begins in Europe in the late-1930s lasting until 1945. Other major ideas and influences that result in Abstract Expressionism are due to uniquely American traits, ideas, and circumstances in the United States. Many Abstract Expressionists of the time used both Color Field and Action Painting to complete their work.

    Abstract Expressionism included works of drawing, painting, print, and sculpture that were focused on the physical properties of the medium used as opposed to pictorial narrative, although not all of them were without reference to the figure or the phenomenal world altogether. Other artists associated with Abstract Expressionism used less sense of representation in their work. Included in the category were Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Abstract Expressionist artists were more concerned with artistic process and formal means than with the creation of narrative pictures. In examining a small cross section of work by the Abstract Expressionist artists, we can see that it may not be appropriate, after all, to call this a stylistic category, as there is not really a stream of visual similarities among them; rather, they are characterized as much by their freedom from the constraints of stylistic rules and their lack of unifying visual features.

    Each of the leading Abstract Expressionist artists has individual ideas, influences, concerns, and techniques in making their artworks. We should analyze their individual motivations and influences as well as understanding what larger ideas associated with Abstract Expressionism as a broader style is evident in their work. It shaped their understanding of painting itself as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the subconscious. Surrealism was an original influence on the themes and concepts of the Abstract Expressionists. Although the American painters were uneasy with the overt Freudian symbolism of the European movement, they were still inspired by its interests in the unconscious, as well as its strain of primitivism and preoccupation with mythology. Many were particularly interested in the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who believed that elements of a collective unconscious had been handed down through the ages by means of archetypal symbols, or primordial images, which had become recurrent motifs.

    A movement of abstract painting that emerged in New York City during the mid-1940s and attained singular prominence in American art in the following decade; also called action painting and the New York school. Jackson Pollock 's turbulent yet elegant abstract paintings, which were created by spattering paint on huge canvases placed on the floor, brought abstract expressionism before a hostile public. Willem de Kooning 's first one-man show in 1948 established him as a highly influential artist. Other important artists involved with the movement included Hans Hofmann , Robert Motherwell , and Mark Rothko ; among other major abstract expressionists were such painters as Clyfford Still , Theodoros Stamos, Adolph Gottlieb, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and Esteban Vicente.

    Many works of art come out of a personal decision to put a feeling, idea, or concept into visual form. Since feelings vary widely, the resulting art takes a wide range of forms. This approach to art comes from the individual’s delight in the experience. Doodling comes to mind as one very basic example of such delight. Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist works, also known as action paintings, are much more than doodles, though they may resemble such on the surface. They were the result of many levels of artistic thought but on a basic level were a combination of delight in the act of painting and in the personal discovery that act enabled.

    An image of Jacokon Pollock's paint spattered work entitled "Autumn Rhythm"

    IMAGE 3.10 Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956), Autumn Rhythm, 1950, enamel paint on canvas, 105 x 207 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art CC0.

    Remixed from:

    “Abstract Expressionism.” Art History, 20th Century. OER Commons. 9 March 2021. Accessed 6 May 2021. CC BY SA.

    Sachant, Pamela; Blood, Peggy; LeMieux, Jeffery; and Tekippe, Rita, "Introduction to Art: Design, Context, and Meaning" (2016). Fine Arts Open Textbooks. 3. CC BY SA.

    “Week 12 / April 17: Abstract Expressionism.” Introduction to the History of Modern Art, CUNY Academic Commons, 3 Jan. 2019, CC BY-NC SA 4.0.


    Many people associate performance art with highly publicized controversies over government funding of the arts, censorship, and standards of public decency. Indeed, at its worst, performance art can seem gratuitous, boring or just plain weird. But, at its best, it taps into our most basic shared instincts: our physical and psychological needs for food, shelter, sex, and human interaction; our individual fears and self-consciousness; our concerns about life, the future, and the world we live in. It often forces us to think about issues in a way that can be disturbing and uncomfortable, but it can also make us laugh by calling attention to the absurdities in life and the idiosyncrasies of human behavior.

    Roman Ondák, Measuring the Universe, 2007, shown enacted at MoMA, 2009

    IMAGE 3.11 Roman Ondák, Measuring the Universe, 2007, shown enacted at MoMA, 2009 CC BY-SA.

    Performance art differs from traditional theater in its rejection of a clear narrative, use of random or chance-based structures, and direct appeal to the audience. The art historian RoseLee Goldberg writes:

    Historically, performance art has been a medium that challenges and violates borders between disciplines and genders, between private and public, and between everyday life and art, and that follows no rules.

    Although the term encompasses a broad range of artistic practices that involve bodily experience and live action, its radical connotations derive from this challenge to conventional social mores and artistic values of the past.


    While performance art is a relatively new area of art history, it has roots in experimental art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Echoing utopian ideas of the period’s avant-garde, these earliest examples found influences in theatrical and music performance, art, poetry, burlesque and other popular entertainment. Modern artists used live events to promote extremist beliefs, often through deliberate provocation and attempts to offend bourgeois tastes or expectations. In Italy, the anarchist group of Futurist artists insulted and hurled profanity at their middle-class audiences in hopes of inciting political action.

    Following World War II, performance emerged as a useful way for artists to explore philosophical and psychological questions about human existence. For this generation, who had witnessed destruction caused by the Holocaust and atomic bomb, the body offered a powerful medium to communicate shared physical and emotional experience. Whereas painting and sculpture relied on expressive form and content to convey meaning, performance art forced viewers to engage with a real person who could feel cold and hunger, fear and pain, excitement and embarrassment—just like them.


    Some artists, inspired largely by Abstract Expressionism, used performance to emphasize the body’s role in artistic production. Working before a live audience, Kazuo Shiraga of the Japanese Gutai Group made sculpture by crawling through a pile of mud. Georges Mathieu staged similar performances in Paris where he violently threw paint at his canvas. These performative approaches to making art built on philosophical interpretations of Abstract Expressionism, which held the gestural markings of action painters as visible evidence of the artist’s own existence. Bolstered by Hans Namuth’s photographs of Jackson Pollock in his studio, moving dance-like around a canvas on the floor, artists like Shiraga and Mathieu began to see the artist’s creative act as equally important, if not more so, to the artwork produced. In this light, Pollock’s distinctive drips, spills and splatters appeared as a mere remnant, a visible trace left over from the moment of creation.

    Shifting attention from the art object to the artist’s action further suggested that art existed in real space and real time. In New York, visual artists combined their interest in action painting with ideas of the avant-garde composer John Cage to blur the line between art and life. Cage employed chance procedures to create musical compositions such as 4’33”. In this (in)famous piece, Cage used the time frame specified in the title to bracket ambient noises that occurred randomly during the performance. By effectively calling attention to the hum of fluorescent lights, people moving in their seats, coughs, whispers, and other ordinary sounds, Cage transformed them into a unique musical composition.


    Drawing on these influences, new artistic formats emerged in the late 1950s. Environments and Happenings physically placed viewers in commonplace surroundings, often forcing them to participate in a series of loosely structured actions. Fluxus artists, poets, and musicians likewise challenged viewers by presenting the most mundane events—brushing teeth, making a salad, exiting the theater—as forms of art. A well-known example is the “bed-in” that Fluxus artist Yoko Ono staged in 1969 in Amsterdam with her husband John Lennon. Typical of much performance art, Ono and Lennon made ordinary human activity a public spectacle, which demanded personal interaction and raised popular awareness of their pacifist beliefs.

    In the politicized environment of the 1960s, many artists employed performance to address emerging social concerns. For feminist artists in particular, using their body in live performance proved effective in challenging historical representations of women, made mostly by male artists for male patrons. In keeping with past tradition, artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke and Valie Export displayed their nude bodies for the viewer’s gaze; but, they resisted the idealized notion of women as passive objects of beauty and desire. Through their words and actions, they confronted their audiences and raised issues about the relationship of female experience to cultural beliefs and institutions, physical appearance, and bodily functions including menstruation and childbearing. Their ground-breaking work paved the way for male and female artists in the 1980s and 1990s, who similarly used body and performance art to explore issues of gender, race and sexual identity.


    Throughout the mid-twentieth century, performance has been closely tied to the search for alternatives to established art forms, which many artists felt had become fetishized as objects of economic and cultural value. Because performance art emphasized the artist’s action and the viewer’s experience in real space and time, it rarely yielded a final object to be sold, collected, or exhibited. Artists of the 1960 and 70s also experimented with other “dematerialized” formats including Earthworks and Conceptual Art that resisted commodification and traditional modes of museum display. The simultaneous rise of photography and video, however, offered artists a viable way to document and widely distribute this new work.

    Performance art’s acceptance into the mainstream over the past 30 years has led to new trends in its practice and understanding. Ironically, the need to position performance within art’s history has led museums and scholars to focus heavily on photographs and videos that were intended only as documents of live events. In this context, such archival materials assume the art status of the original performance. This practice runs counter to the goal of many artists, who first turned to performance as an alternative to object-based forms of art. Alternatively, some artists and institutions now stage re-enactments of earlier performances in order to recapture the experience of a live event. In a 2010 retrospective exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for example, performers in the galleries staged live reenactments of works by the pioneering performance artist Marina Abramovic, alongside photographs and video documentation of the original performances.


    New strategies, variously described as situations, relational aesthetics, and interventionist art, have recently begun to appear. Interested in the social role of the artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija stages performances that encourage interpersonal exchange and shared conversation among individuals who might not otherwise meet. His performances have included cooking traditional Thai dinners in museums for viewers to share, and relocating the entire contents of a gallery’s offices and storage rooms, including the director at his desk, into public areas used to exhibit art. Similar to performance art of the past, such approaches engage the viewer and encourage their active participation in artistic production; however, they also speak to a cultural shift toward interactive modes of communication and social exchange that characterize the 21st century.

    Remixed from:

    Dr. Virginia B. Spivey. “Performance Art an Introduction.” (Article).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, introduction. Accessed 6 May 2021. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US.


    From early on, originality was the buzzword and motto of Gutai art. As the group’s leader, Yoshihara Jirō, repeated time and again: “Create what has not been done before!” At the same time, originality is also a fundamental notion in the conventional division of creative labor between center and periphery, according to which “innovation takes place in the center and is disseminated to the periphery.” Hence, to decenter modernism, as Tiampo puts it, “we must first decenter originality.”

    Despite its outlandish results in the eyes of its contemporaries, Gutai’s relentless search for originality, as Tiampo demonstrates, must be understood within the context of the pressing issues that affected Japanese cultural politics after the country’s defeat in the Second World War. Having lived through the fascist militarization that accompanied Japan’s imperialistic expansion in East Asia, Yoshihara embraced postwar values of individuality and subjective autonomy as antidotes to the prewar ideology of kokutai, or the national body: “Radically subverting the wartime image of the nation’s body (kokutai) in the immediate postwar period, the carnal body (nikutai) emerged as a site of expression and as the root source of desire and subjective autonomy (shutaisei).” As Tiampo argues, Gutai’s emphasis on creative originality cannot be dissociated from this embrace of subjective autonomy and individuality as fundamental political values in postwar Japan. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that Yoshihara’s embrace of individual creativity—not to mention Gutai’s distance from the social struggles of 1950s and 1960s Japan—simultaneously set the group apart from a more collective, class-based understanding of shutaisei as well as from the leftist politics of their contemporaries in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan.

    I . Introduction

    Japan's postwar artists have hated what they see as Western cultural imperialism. They've also fallen in love with the vulgarity and excess of American culture. Since the Gutai explosion, Japan's contemporary art has run fender with just about everyone else's. In the 1960's there were social protest works and obsessions with the human body, raucous figurative paintings in the 1980s and elaborate video installations in the 1990s. And this emulation business has been a two-way street. The Guggenheim Museum SoHo survey of Japanese Art After 1945 : Scream Against the Sky" (1994-1995) aroused intense curiosity and some controversy. This first-ever major exhibition of Japanese modern art in the U.S. shows that many of today's art movements had their origins in japan. The purpose here is to explore a little further into the first avant-garde movement, the Gutai group after World War II in japan. "Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky" Whether those who are aficionados of modern art or merely curious beginners, this exhibition is a milestone. Such blockbuster exhibitions as "Japan des avant-gardes 1910-1970" in Paris, and “Against Nature : Japanese Art in the Eighties" which toured the U.S., were essential for grasping the fundamental elements of Japanese avant-garde art, movement offered information about artwork that gave rise to extraordinary phenomena. In impact and importance, the exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo might be compared with the New York Armory Show in 1913 : modern art's first major show in the U.S. The American art world got their first look at artwork by Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky and Matisse. Furthermore, Duchamp' s renowned Nude Descending a Staircase created a commotion. In the catalog essay for the Japanese Art After 1945, the curator Alexandra Munroe said that "Modernism and the concept of avant garde art are Western ideas that Japan received from abroad.” But just before the exhibition opened, she stated, “A lot of the work in the show might seem to look like American abstract expressionism and conceptual art, but it really comes out of another culture." In fact, she is of two minds about this show. In other words, "this exhibition presents a significant argument that world-class art has been wrongly over-looked.” This exhibition engages me in dialogue. First, it asks what the originality of art is. In general, Zen, Wabi-Sabi, calligraphy and elements of Buddhism have been taken to explain Japanese art or to show relationships with more or less large areas of these artworks. Japanese art and these words might just be one of the partially successful approaches, but they might also bring in misleading analyses for Japanese art. Now we must reconsider the originality of Japanese modern art. The Gutai and Japanese Modernism "Anyone who regarded Japanese contemporary art as a watered-down version of Western modernism has a surprise in store." Many of the artists in the exhibition, especially the Gutai artists had been pioneers in styles, for example “conceptual art, performance art and body art, all of which ·America and Europe tend to claim as their own”. Especially, the Gutai group was frequently cited as the first truly radical postwar art movement in Japan. Its performance centered works, theatrical events and multimedia environments had enormous influence on both Japan and other countries, primarily through photo-documentation in a periodical that was the group's first production and gave the Gutai group its name. The Gutai Japanese-English magazine, which ran for twelve issues between 1955 and 1965, helped to introduce their artworks abroad and led to a series of their exhibitions. There was no doubt that in Europe, the periodical was instrumental in initiating an exchange between the Japanese and European avant-gardes. The effect of Japanese modernism was "a bit more than a time-lag appropriation of Western art works. This was a real tense time period as they tried to resolve itself here." In the early 1950' s, a boom of international loan exhibitions began in Japan. According to Munroe, until 1954, "the Salon de mai survey of contemporary French painting and one-person shows of works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, George Rouault, and Ossip Zadkine all traveled to Japan. Rapid, successive exposure to contemporary art was also facilitated by a deluge of international and domestic art magazines that were available after years of censorship." Munroe quoted a comment by a Japanese critic, Shuzo Takiguchi in order to indicate the japanese artists had been starved of Western modern art: Perhaps we haven't completely digested the movements and principles of Western art.

    Japanese contemporary art must exist in our guts and bones. This is where everything begins. Is it possible that we do not yet understand our very own substance? As Takig uchi stated above, "starting from zero" was no academic theory, but everyday imperative. A traumatic shock was seared into the consciousness of the people of Japan by two atomic bombs. At the same time, "Japanese postwar artists hated what they saw in Western cultural imperialism. They also fell in love with the vulgarity and excess of American culture.” Consequently, they veered between trying to revive and make art, for instance : traditional ceramics, and "art with dripped paint or Coca Cola logos." Munroe stated that Jiro Yoshiwara, founder of the 1950's ground-breaking Gutai movement, "promoted a bold and spirited anti-academicism.” Yoshiwara exhorted its followers to "Create what has never existed before!" Yoshiwara, also stated this vision in the first issue of the Gutai magazine, "The art of the present represents freedom for those living in this severe time .... Our profound wish is to concretely prove that our spirits are free." He defined art-making as the symbolization of freedom, an individual soul, a destructive rite to create something new. The group was founded in 1954 by artists proclaiming their freedom from the oppressive Japanese government during World War II. It was based in Nishinomiya city (Hyogo prefecture) in the western region of Japan. "The noun gutai literally means 'concreteness· ... Using this name, Gutai signified concrete enactments of individual character, emotion, and thought in opposition to cerebral and abstract aesthetics. The Gutai artists sought radical new means for expressing the historical crisis. Some artists took abstract expressionism and pushed it further into space. They applied paint with their bare feet, broke bottles on canvas and even painted with remote-control devices. "As apolitical and anarchic, they melded Western and Eastern thinking and set both gently askew,”said the critic Holland Cotter in the New York Times. The artworks of Kazuo Shiraga remind us of both Zen notions of chance and action paintings when he threw away his brushes and began to paint Pollock-like abstractions with his feet. On the other hand, he anticipates postmodernist preoccupation with bizarre media in his painting incorporating bore hide in his canvas. Atsuko Tanaka's Electric dress (1956), a kind of ritual wear made of colored electric lights and bells, which includes an electronic switching system to control the individual bulbs and "seems to be a witty emblem of both the lure and the danger of technology.” Cotter said, in his review, that the wearer looked fantastic and very sophisticated but risked electrocution. The Gutai as an Influential Pioneer of Contemporary Art The Gutai group was an influential pioneer to late 1950’s happenings and performance arts of the 1960’s, a fact acknowledged by Allan Kaprow. Kaprow wrote that “did not know of the Gutai movement until 1959 and did not see photographs of events until 1963.” The Gutai group anticipated the Happenings and performance art of New York. ""Their activities were staed in an article entitled "Japanese Innovators” by Ray Falk, which reported how the Gutai artists brought action into their artwork, turning it into theater. Eighteen members of the Gutai group exhibited twenty-eight paintings as the sixth Gutai exhibition at Martha jackson Gallery, New York in the fall of 1958, and these Gutai exhibitions traveled to other American venues. The seventh Gutai exhibition in 1959 was held in Turin, initiating a long-lasting appreciation of Gutai work in Italy. The Gutai exhibitions were consequently held in Austria, France, Holland and Germany during the 1960’s as late as 1965-67, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized “The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture”: which included many Gutai artists and the show toured seven other U.S. museums.

    By not just framing personal body gestures, but going beyond them; painting with their feet for example. Setting down his canvas of dribbles and drips, Kanayama went beyond Jackson Pollock not through wrist flicks, but by attaching his brush to a small toy robot. Murakami hurled glass jars of paint against rocks in front of canvas : we can see shards of glass embedded in the paint. Shozo Shimamoto was inspired by an early encounter with artworks of Zen artist-monk Nantenbo Toju ( 1839- 1926) Yoshiwara often took fellow members of the Gutai group to see Nantenbo"s famous fusuma paintings at the Kaisei Temple in Nishinomiya. Shimamoto was shocked by Nantenbo"s large works which had been executed with an oversize, heavy brush that required all the artist’s energy to act. Since Nantenbo had completed the sequence of strokes in each ideogram, the weight of black ink and his energy caused huge splashes of ink to be thrown across the surface, making a visible record of his physical struggle with his materials. Shimamoto attempted to incorporate the factors of time, space and their interaction-the idea of the artwork as a locus of the movement of the body- into his artwork in various ways. His early artwork such as Hole of ca. 1950 represents a record of the powerful motions of the artist : he pierced the surface of the paper with a pencil again and again. His later paintings, such as work of 1960, and some related photo-documented events took this action orientation a stage further by underlining a random painting process. Like Mura-kami, Shimamoto flung a bottle filled with enamel paint against a rock located in the center of a large sheet of canvas : the resulting painting involved impact-generated sprays of viscous paint in which glass fragments were embedded. The founder of the Gutai group, Yoshiwara Nantcnbo. Ink Paintings of Danmw was the most conventional abstract painter in it. Munroe said of Yoshiwara, “his interests remained more formal and spiritual. Besides his abiding interest in modern European abstraction, he was actively involved with Shiryu Morita and the avant-garde calligraphy movement.” Shiryu Morita was also influenced by Nantenbo whom mentioned before. After 1962, Yoshiwara tended to concentrate on executing a series of circle paintings stimulated by Zen notion for ten years. This artwork “represents void and substance, emptiness and completion, and the union of painting, calligraphy, and meditation.” ln the tradition of Zen monk-artists, Yoshiwara repeatedly practiced his circle paintings as a form of spiritual discipline while pursuing the realization of a perfect form of modern abstract painting. “I am grateful that however big the space know that one circle can fill it, will complete the picture. It save me from having to think what to draw on every canvas. I am only left with dealing with what kind of circle will be made. Or, with what kind of circle I will make .... It is up to me as to whether I have come to an understanding with my circles and myself.” A primary motive behind the Gutai group's assimilation of Eastern and Western ideas, as well as behind the group's earnest recognition of the theory of l"informe l that Tapie championed for them, was the desire to be seen as energetic participants in an international art world. On the other hand, most of postwar Japanese artists often followed the Western art styles. “The Japanese themselves were worried about being provincial, at the same time, were looking for their own identity as artists : some ambitious artists, such as On Kawara chose to live outside Japan.” But this is not the whole story. "Japanese culture also equipped artists with means to infuse certain general themes of international postwar art with great conviction.” Some art critics commented that Japanese art just followed Western art until now. But, perhaps we can say that the Gutai group's ideas were simultaneous with Western avant-garde movements and that the Gutai artists were drawing from their own culture rather than adopting foreign modes of art movements. During 1950's and early 60's, many Japanese artists and critics discussed the relationship between Western contemporary art and Japanese art. After some survey blockbuster exhibitions of Western contemporary art were held in japan, the debate appeared prominently.

    We should notice that Japanese art has parallels Western contemporary art of the time. Under these conditions, the Gutai follows: While debates about the nature of Gutai art are far from resolved, Gutai's radical achievements in the context of Japanese modernism are now recognized as historical fact. Not coincidentally, Gutai's overdue recognition as Japan's primary 'original avant-garde movement' has occurred as part of a national revisionist effort to establish a history of Japanese modernism independent from the Euro-American narrative. Conclusion After World War II , the prominence of the Gutai group helped other Japanese artists find "fresh and rough-hewn ways of working.” In the 1960's and 70's, there were expressions of "anti-art, inter-media, conceptual, and metaphysical art forms." In addition, there were new paintings and sculptures in the 1980's and video installations and computer-generated artworks in the 1990's. The Gutai artists broke their conventional identity and established their own identity as international an art movement. The Gutai artists left clues for followers to set up a vital exchange between Japan and the West. While searching for a contemporary identity, the Gutai artists, by inspiring Western avant-garde ideas into Japanese notion, turned theory artists were able to grasp and develop it. The curator, Munroe identified the Gutai group as wasteland into a rich field in the art world.

    Remixed from:

    The Originality of Japanese Contemporary Art 著者名(英) Naoki Mitsui journal or publication title 共立女子短期大学生活科学科紀要 volume 56 page range 1-9 year 2013-02 URL CC BY-NC-ND.

    Pedro Erber. College Art Association. CC BY ND.