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Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation Collage

Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation - History and Concepts

Started: 1950
Ended: 1965
Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation Timeline

Beginnings of Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation

The first generation of Abstract Expressionists rose to fame in New York in the 1940s. They responded to the trauma of war with a bombastic, all-encompassing art filled with emotional grit and angst. By the 1950s their macho, aggressive style of painting had reached its zenith, culminating in worldwide prominence for the movement's star players including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, placing New York and the United States at the center of the modern art world.

Artists emerging in the wake of these giants faced a great challenge in attempting to move beyond or upstage their methods for making art, which tore apart pictorial conventions with "all-over," decentralized compositions, making it almost impossible to put them back together again. Kenneth Brummell, curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, explains: "Pollock destroyed assumptions about painting - the generation of artists that followed were forced to contend with his innovations." The art that arose after Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning was more splintered and complex, encompassing a wider pool of artists from across the Unites States and beyond.

Greenberg and the “Tenth Street Touch”

Willem de Kooning in his “Tenth Street” New York studio in 1961, which attracted a flock of up-and-coming artists throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

A long-time champion of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists, New York-based art critic Clement Greenberg kept a watchful eye as expressive, painterly forms of abstraction evolved across the United States. His assertive voice would prove instrumental in defining the second generation of Abstract Expressionists that followed. He was deeply critical of the many younger artists who congregated around de Kooning's tenth street studio in New York, noting how their attempts to emulate de Kooning were becoming ever more self-consciously stylized and derivative, scornfully labelling their approach as the "tenth street touch." He observed how "Painterly abstraction has collapsed, because in its second generation it has produced some of the most mannered, imitative, uninspiring and repetitious art in our tradition."

The artists from New York that did successfully move beyond the mannered styles of expressionism were a less coherent group, and their art was more individualized and biographical in content than the first generation. Many women artists rose to prominence, such as Pollock's wife Lee Krasner, who became remarkably prolific in the years following Pollock's death, and Joan Mitchell, who was closely involved with the male-led first generation of Abstract Expressionists in her early career, before living out her later years as an abstract painter in France.

Greenberg and Color Field Painting

Mark Rothko, <i>No. 3/No. 13</i>, (<i>Magenta, Black, Green on Orange</i>), 1949, Oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Greenberg was critical of the impasto effects that resulted from the application of thick paint layers in the work of many Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1950s. He likened their effects to that of a sculpture, rather than a painting, and so their appearances contradicted his championing of medium specificity. Instead, Greenberg increasingly turned his attention towards the sublime Color Field approach to painting opened up by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, celebrating their ambient, emotive approach to color applied in broad, unmodulated surfaces. He particularly praised their flat surfaces, which erased the self-conscious, labored, or overworked touch of the human hand, liberating the canvas to become an arena filled with space and air.

Greenberg expanded his ideas in a series of hugely influential texts, including the essays "American-Type Painting (1955)," and "Modernist Painting (1961)," which both advocated for the idea of painting as a pure, autonomous art form that should relate only to itself, making no allusions to the outside world. The artists he praised in these essays were all developing atmospheric Color Field approaches to painting.

Beyond The New York School: Washington, DC and San Francisco

Throughout the 1950s both Washington, DC. and San Francisco became lively hubs for second-generation Abstract Expressionists. New York-based painter Helen Frankenthaler was particularly influential on a group of artists in Washington, DC. led by Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, who developed her languid, painterly washes of color in daring new directions, further simplifying and refining her late Abstract Expressionism into a geometric, ordered language that would become known as the Washington Color School, a variant of Color Field painting. The Greenberg-curated exhibition Three New American Painters: Louis, Noland, Olitski (1963) at Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Canada represented his critical stance in their support. Greenberg argued that their art put "the main stress on color as hue [...] harking back in some ways to Impressionism, reconciling the Impressionist glow with Cubist opacity."

On the West Coast, artists Richard Diebenkorn and David Park were key figures in the San Francisco scene. Much like de Kooning and Guston in New York, both Park and Diebenkorn began introducing figuration back into their expressive paintings throughout the 1950s in a style that would become known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Even so, many artists within the Bay Area continued to practice in an Abstract Expressionist style throughout this period and beyond as a friendly form of rivalry to their figurative counterparts. The area was particularly notable for its openness towards women and minority artists, which stood in stark contrast to New York's original machismo.

Women Artists

Joan Mitchell, <i>Rock Bottom</i>, 1960-61, Oil on canvas, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas, Austin

If the first generation of Abstract Expressionists was largely dominated by a core group of white male artists centred around New York's Greenwich Village, various women artists stepped forward into the limelight as the second generation emerged, injecting a much-needed boost of life into the language of expressive abstraction. Jackson Pollock's wife Lee Krasner was associated with the earlier Abstract Expressionists throughout the 1940s, but her career only really took off after his death in 1956. She moved into Pollock's famous studio in their shared house in Springs, Long Island, and began painting through the night as a way to cope, producing vastly-scaled canvases that reflected on the sudden shock and isolation of her new life. "Painting was her antidote to grief," said curator Helen Harrison, today's director of the Pollock-Krasner home.

American painter Joan Mitchell had also been an active member of the New York school, but her career took off only in the early 1950s following a series of successful solo exhibitions in New York. Like several second-generation Abstract Expressionists, Mitchell's work moved beyond the expression of internal angst toward externalizing memories of time and place. As she once explained it, "I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me - and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed."

Other prominent and fearless women artists associated with the emergence of late Abstract Expressionism in New York included Jay DeFeo, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher and Elaine de Kooning.

Post-Painterly Abstraction

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where Greenberg's landmark exhibition, <i>Post Painterly Abstraction</i>, first opened in 1964

In 1964 Greenberg curated the exhibition Post-Painterly Abstraction at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). He included 31 artists in the show, the most prominent and celebrated figures being Frankenthaler, Jack Bush, Morris Louis, Jack Youngerman and Kenneth Noland. The exhibition made a clear divide between earlier, painterly styles of gestural abstraction and more recent developments, which (although diverse) all moved away from expressionist brushstrokes, including the Washington Color School, Bay Area artists, hard-edge abstraction, lyrical abstraction and Color Field Painting.

Greenberg's distinction between first- and second-generation Abstract Expressionism highlighted how the second generation had shifted from an interior, subjective view to a more externalized language, exploring how deeper meaning can be found in the objective world. The exhibition can be understood as Greenberg's defense of abstract painting against the tide of time. It came at a moment when new styles of art such as Neo-Dada, Pop Art, and Performance Art all aimed to to bring art closer to life, threatening to engulf the art of medium purity on which he had built his entire career.

Concepts and Styles

Art & Ideas:

Color Field Painting

The Color Field strand of Abstract Expressionism led by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still was hugely influential on a new generation of painters coming out of New York throughout the early 1950s. Greenberg's influential exhibitions and essays did much to promote this new branch of abstraction, which he saw as the logical next step in a steady progression towards pure, autonomous painting. The most prominent of these artists were Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski. In contrast with their predecessors, their art was more vivid and intense, focusing on the ambient and emotive properties of saturated hues, which they bled into large, expansive surfaces resulting in amorphous abstract shapes. The gesturalism of earlier Abstract Expressionism was largely abandoned in Color Field painting, allowing unmodulated passages of color to take center stage. Frankenthaler had a breakthrough moment with her iconic painting Mountains and Sea (1952), in which she poured diluted, watery paint directly onto raw and unprimed canvas that she had laid flat on the studio floor, letting it pool and soak into the weave of the fabric surface. This so-called "soak-stain" approach merged the floor-based action art of Pollock with the sublime, atmospheric color of Rothko, heralding a new breakthrough in abstract painting.

Olitski, too, experimented with expressive and spontaneous paint applications, playing with spray guns and layering different paint viscosities from thin hazy washes to thick, impasto textures. Underpinning his practice was an acute awareness of color and its arresting impact. He wrote, "Color in color is felt at any and every place of the pictorial organisation; in its immediacy - its particularity. Color must be felt throughout."

The Washington Color School

Kenneth Noland, <i>Beginning</i>, 1958

Throughout the 1950s various artists in and around the Washington, DC area advanced abstract painting in new directions, exploring the spatial and non-gestural properties of color opened up by New York's Color Field painters. Leaders in this new style were Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, while others associated with the style included Sam Gilliam, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing, Paul Reed, Alma Thomas and the sculptor Anne Truitt.

Both Louis and Noland had painted in an Abstract Expressionist style in the 1940s, which attracted the attention of Greenberg. When Greenberg introduced them to Frankenthaler's work in 1953, Noland and Louis began adopting variations of her "soak-stain" method of painting in their practices. For Louis, color was a driving force, applied in vivid rainbow stripes that sometimes bled seamlessly into one another. Louis found his signature style by pouring diluted passages of bright magna paint (a type of acrylic resin paint known for its glossy finish) on a flat surface and tilting it up to allow the paint to run in rivulets down the surface. The new method merged the same qualities of systematic control and unpredictability as Frankenthaler's. Noland, too, adopted the "soak-stain" technique as a means of imbuing large areas of atmospheric, expansive color into his surfaces. His trademark "Target" paintings from the 1950s and beyond explored how radiating disks of vivid color could create the sensation of infinite, endlessly regenerating open space.

An exhibition in 1965 at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art titled Washington Color Painters organized by gallery director Gerald Nordland cemented the Washington Color School as a significant new art movement.

The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco photographed by Frank Schulenberg

Within the San Francisco Bay area, a branch of Abstract Expressionism had flourished throughout the 1940s as a rival to the New York School, and Abstract Expressionist approaches continued to prove popular in the area throughout the 1950s. The San Francisco Art Institute played a pivotal role in fostering an innovative and open-minded environment with faculty members including Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and Clyfford Still in the 1940s. Still became head of the graduate painting programme at the Institute in 1946, where he remained for four years. His influence galvanised Abstract Expressionist practices within the area for a new and upcoming generation.

Many artists were drawn to the Bay area, which became an alternative hub to New York. The artistic environment here was markedly different from New York; with few commercial galleries available, artists were less competitive, allowing for a supportive sharing of ideas. Art historian Susan Landauer describes the San Francisco attitude as one of "broad collective impulse" as opposed to the macho, ego-driven attitudes of New York. The area's Beat poets, Dixieland jazz musicians and the breath-taking scenery also shaped a particular spirit of expressionism within the area. Leading practitioners to emerge from San Francisco throughout the 1950s include Edward Corbett, Jay DeFeo, James Budd Dixon, Frank Lobdell and Hassel Smith.

A Return to Realism

Richard Diebenkorn, <i>Seawall</i>, 1957, Oil on canvas, Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Throughout the later years of Abstract Expressionism, various artists who had focused exclusively on abstraction began re-introducing elements of representation back into their practices. In New York, Willem de Kooning's infamous "Woman" paintings of the 1950s caused quite a sensation among critics and painters more accustomed to seeing his abstractions, because it disrupted the supposed narrative of reductive abstraction laid out by Greenberg. (Although he had been subtly switching between abstraction and figuration since the 1930s, his "Woman" paintings made a distinct move into directly figurative forms, setting this phase of his art apart from his earlier abstract style). Philip Guston, by comparison, had pursued an entirely abstract language throughout the 1940s, but he gradually changed tack, slowly bringing recognizable shapes and forms into his art before going full throttle in the 1960s with cartoon-like characters playing out overtly political scenarios. Greenberg was critical of Guston's "more coherent illusion of three-dimensional space," and the "tangible representation of three-dimensional objects," because they broke from his notion of modern art as a steady march towards medium purity. Harold Rosenberg, by contrast, continued to support the rising strands of representation within the style of Action Painting that he had championed in 1952.

Within the San Francisco Bay area, the renowned abstract artists David Park and Richard Diebenkorn spearheaded the Bay Area Figurative Movement from around 1949 onwards as a rival to the region's dominant strand of Abstract Expressionism, with crudely painted figures combined with slabs of vivid, intense color. Other artists who followed their lead included Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Nathan Oliviera, Paul Wonner and Elmer Bischoff. The movement was a powerful counterpoint to Greenberg's narrative of formalist abstraction. Park, Diebenkorn, and Bischoff responded intuitively to their surroundings with a free, painterly language, capturing the distinctive light and color of San Francisco. Bischoff pointed out how their expressive figuration marked the end of Abstract Expressionism, which was "playing itself dry," adding, "I can only compare it to the end of a love affair."

Later Developments - After Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation

Ellsworth Kelly, <i>Color Panels for a Large Wall</i>, 1978, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The influence of late Abstract Expressionism on international art trends was far-ranging, splintering into various divergent factions from the 1960s onward. The strand of Color Field abstraction practiced by Frankenthaler and the Washington Color School undoubtedly paved the way for the Hard-Edge Abstraction of Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, who rejected painterly gesturalism in favor of impersonal fields of clean, flat color and geometric, systematic designs.

These ideas in turn helped shape Minimalist art from the mid-1960s onwards throughout the United States and Europe. Various artists including German artist Blinky Palermo and Americans Richard Tuttle and Robert Ryman explored the sensuous language of color and texture that was borne out of late Abstract Expressionist ideas but rendered them in a "cleaner," more geometric form in keeping with a Minimalist gravitation toward simplification. The idea of color as an ambient, atmospheric experience was taken further by various light artists, including Dan Flavin and James Turrell. The systematic approach to painting in Frankenthaler and Louis's practices continue to influence artists today, as seen in Scottish artist Calum Innes's stripped back "un-paintings," and British painter Ian Davenport's slick, glossy stripes made from poured gloss paint.

In New York, Contemporary Realism emerged in the 1960s as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, with artists painting cool, detached observations of ordinary life. Several artists associated with the style, including Nell Blaine and Jane Freilicher, began their careers as Abstract Expressionists before adopting an increasingly figurative language, yet certain qualities of Abstract Expressionist art were carried forward, including flat areas of color and large, expansive canvases.

The idea of Action Painting (the critic Harold Rosenberg's term for Abstract Expressionist work) provided a springboard for the new generation toward inclusion of everyday life and more explicit political messages in their art. As early as 1958, Kaprow understood this implication in his insightful essay, "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock." Rather than an arena for inner subjectivity expression, Action Painting was re-styled as a form of event in the Neo-Dada and Performance Art of various practitioners in New York, particularly Karpow's own experiential "happenings" in the 1960s, and the important Body Art of Feminist movements that came afterwards.

In the 1980s, Neo-Expressionists such as Julian Schnabel and Georg Baselitz popularized a self-consciously ironic form of figurative expressionism, and, in recent years, an upsurge of figurative painting has seen similar styles appearing throughout the international art world, from the erotic bodies in the art of Cecily Brown to the stains and haunting distortions of bodies in the work of Marlene Dumas.

Do Not Miss

  • A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
  • A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, Color Field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
  • Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
  • The Bay Area Figurative Movement emerged in the 1950s and 60s around the San Francisco Bay. Heavily influenced by the color fields and painterly brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, they later moved away from abstraction in a more figurative direction.
  • The Washington Color School refers to a group of painters including Noland, Louis, and Truitt. Their work is marked by the presence of color areas, washes, and geometric designs that emphasized the two-dimensional surface of the picture plane and its lack of reference to any subject matter.

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan

"Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan
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First published on 27 Feb 2022. Updated and modified regularly
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