Note the sarcasm of a New Yorker magazine cartoon from the early 1950s: Two seemingly well-to-do gentlemen are viewing an abstract painting when one says snobbishly to the other, “His spatter is masterful, but his dribbles lack conviction.”
After a rough reception from the majority of art critics and the public, abstract expressionism is now considered by many — along with classical instrumental music — art at its purest form. There is neither specific meaning attached to it, nor a story to be told; it’s all about immersion in color, feeling and sensation and the promise of an unadulterated aesthetic experience.
Such experience occurs when “we enter a state of pure contemplation; we are momentarily raised above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves,” according to 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) is considered the “father of abstractionism.” He created the first abstract watercolor in 1913 titled “Untitled (Study for Composition VII).” Jump to after World War II when European artists emigrated to the United States, where they introduced their aesthetic and mixed it with the experimentations that American artists were performing.
As a result, abstract expressionism helped New York replace Paris as a center of the avant garde, reflecting the creativity and financial muscle of the New World and creating in the process, in the mid-20th century, the first all-abstract, American art movement, the “New York School.”
“Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera” is an ongoing exhibition at The Met Fifth Avenue (its website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at #MetEpicAbstract). The exhibit begins in the 1940s, extends into the 21st century and explores large-scale abstract painting, sculpture and assemblage through more than 50 works including iconic pieces from The Met collection. Included are American Jackson Pollock’s (1912-56) classic “drip” painting, “Autumn Rhythm,” (1950) that is shown in conversation with works by other artists, such as Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928-2011) Carmen Herrera, (Cuban-American, b.1915, 104 years old!), and Cy Twombly (American, 1928-2011).
Stylistic speaking, abstract art follows formalism, the theory of art that asserts that we should focus only on the formal properties of art. These are: originality, color, shape, texture and line. Taken to extreme, everything necessary to comprehend and enjoy is in the painting — the intention of the artist is not a factor.
In the Met exhibition, it is worth mentioning examples of works by Russian-American Mark Rothko (1903-69) and Pollock before they have achieved their visual trademarks. Both started far away from where they would eventually end up, as their pre-fame paintings are clearly inferior to what came next.
Franz Kline (American, 1910-62) and Robert Motherwell (American, 1915-91) are masters of black and white. Carmen Herrera also favors those two colors, but on a less inspired geometric abstract — three upside down black triangles on white canvas. Unfortunately, Frankenthaler is represented by one of her lesser works.
In brief, long gone are the days when Albert Camus, the French author and philosopher, and not a fan of abstract art, caustically defined it in the 1950s: “Abstract art is a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.” Today, five out of the 15 most expensive paintings sold between 2008 and 2018 are by abstract expressionist artists: Willem de Kooning, (Dutch-American, 1904-97, two paintings), Jackson Pollock (two paintings), and Mark Rothko (one). These five works of art fetched more than $1 billion from 2008 through 2018. Money talks!