Men Only. Abstract Expressionism with regard to issues of race and gender

Essay 2012 12 Pages

Art - History of Art


- Men Only - Abstract Expressionism with regard to issues of race and gender

Abstract Expressionism is often referred to as the “most powerful original movement in the history of American art”[1], which dominated American painting from the end of World War II. In examining its styles and themes, this essay is going to illustrate why the movement is deemed a modern and American art practice. Consindering paintings of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Barnett Newman (1905-1970), specific attention will be drawn to issues of race and gender.

Barnett Newman’s essay “The Sublime is Now” (1948) is one of the most important writings in regard to the ideas behind Abstract Expressionism. From antiquity, the ideals of beauty and the sublime had been prevalent as motives of art. The concept of the sublime, first established by the Greek rhetorician Longinus, probably in the 3rd century AD and later, in 1757 most famously elaborated by Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, terms a powerful feeling that originates from a mixture of fear and astonishment.[2] The sublime, however, faded from the spotlight, as the belief became prevalent that pure feeling was not enough, there had to be a visible statement to the absolute in the artwork, and subsequently art was dominated by notions of beauty and perfect representation.[3] Newman states that in the Renaissance, indeed, antique ideals were renewed and representations of Christ had to combine Christian sublimity and absolute beauty. But Michelangelo realised that no ever so velvety or rich painting could represent sublime divinity as the plasticity of sculpting could do – make “a cathedral out of man”[4].

First with impressionism the impulse to destroy the ideal of beauty came to art’s mind. Still, the problem according to Barnett Newman was that the impressionists indeed abandoned the quest for beauty, but did not offer a surrogate towards the sublime. Therefore, in the opinion of Newman, for a long time, European art was stuck in self-reflection, but did not make striking innovations.[5] Modern art was so busy setting its wits to old-established ideals and traditions; that it was incapable of breaking with them, or made the mistake to deny them completely, which resulted in Mondrian’s “empty world of geometric formalisms”.[6]

Newman proclaimed that American painting, “free from the weight of European culture”[7] could find the answer to the problem of lost sublimity. It is remarkable, that here in the text he changes from an objective-neutral diction to a subjective exclamation in first-person-plural and speaks of “natural desires for the exalted” and “absolute emotions”.[8] He degrades European history to an “outmoded and antiquated legend”, of which modern American art should free itself. He calls on American paintings to have the nerve to resign from outdated associations and express itself purely with means of colour and form. He writes: "We are freeing ourselves from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth [...], which have been the devices of European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or "life," we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”[9]

His painting “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” from 1950 visualises this desire. The Latin title can be translated into “male, heroic and sublime”. The almost completely red canvas impresses especially through its size: seven feet high and nearly 18 feet long. The redness, in which no brushstroke is visible, is interrupted by five vertical lines the so-called “zips”, which are characteristical in the painting of Newman. The colours have semantic quality: red is a very powerful colour, which used to represent the highest sacred persons. In Newman’s theory, as today there are no comparable gods (as for example in antiquity), art has to depict this divinity with pure colour and form: red, thereby, becomes a colour of the sublime. The vertical lines intensify the redness to an extent that it expands beyond the boundaries of the canvas. The viewer, who should position himself directly in front of the painting, experiences the power of colour and senses the overwhelming presence of the sublime.

After the end of the Second World War, American society and culture began to transform and new ideals and values and also a new self-confidence entailed the search for not only a national identity, but also shaped a national art, which began to free itself from foreign influences. The attitudes of the artists towards Europe were, however, ambivalent.

On the one hand, there was an “anxiety of influence”[10], as represented by Barnett Newman who proclaimed the isolated and new and put emphasis on originality, the sublime and absolute. On the other hand, and possibly more realistic, European influences of German Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism cannot be denied. Pollock once said that the idea of an isolated American painting to him seems absurd.[11] Even if the artists wanted to free themselves from their past, one should not forget, that North America itself was full of inhabitants from the “old world” and moreover, the World War brought influential European artists to America. All American Expressionists began their careers in a more representative style and Pollock for example was a huge admirer of Pablo Picasso and reckons the first important paintings being done in France.[12] The idea of the Unconscious, which interested Pollock the most, was theorized by Sigmund Freud and James Joyce’s masterpiece “Ulysses” and its stream of consciousness can be seen as (European) precursor of Pollock’s intuitive art. The history of America is different from Europe’s, another context influenced the artists. Therefore, Pollock points out that “an American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any country.”[13] De Kooning supported this chain of thought, although he even more accepted America as unimaginable without Europe. He confessed almost ruefully that “the idea that art can come from nowhere is typically American”.[14]


[1] Arnason, H.H. (ed.), American abstract expressionists and imagists [exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (catalogue)] (New York, 1961, p. 25).

[2] cf. ashfield, Andrew/Peter de Bolla (ed.), “The sublime: a reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 128f).

[3] cf. newman, Barnett, “Das Erhabene ist jetzt”, via: http://www.uni-weimar.de/cms/uploads/media/Newman__Barnett-sublime_is_now-DE.pdf (09/04/2012).

[4] Newman, Barnett, 'The Sublime is Now' (1948), in: Chipp, Herschel B., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, c1968, p. 552).

[5] ibid.

[6] Barnett Newman, 1968, p. 553.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] Barnett Newman, 1968, p. 553.

[10] ANFAM, David, “Transatlantic Anxieties, Especially Bill’s Folly”, in: Marter, Joan (ed.), Abstract expressionism: the international context (New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, c2007, p.53).

[11] cf. Pollock, Jackson, “Three Statements 1944-51”, in: Chipp, Herschel B., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, c1968, p. 546).

[12] cf. ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] ANFAM, David, “Transatlantic Anxieties, Especially Bill’s Folly”, in: Marter, Joan (ed.), Abstract expressionism: the international context (New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, c2007, p. 66).


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Title: Men Only. Abstract Expressionism with regard to issues of race and gender