Abstract expressionism

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Arshile Gorky, 1936: image in khorkom, painting
Arshile Gorky, 1944 large painting
Jackson Pollock, c, 1946? two of his paintings on canvas, location in the MOMA
Robert Motherwell, 1947: 'Ulysses', oil paint on three dimensional cardboard and wood construction, - location: Tate Modern
David Smith, Cubi VI (1963), Israel Museum, Jerusalem. David Smith was one of the most influential American sculptors of the 20th century.

Abstract expressionism, described in sourced art quotes. Abstract expressionism / w:New York School (art) was a post–World War II art movement in American painting. The artists were building on elements from Abstract art, Surrealism and Expressionism. The movement was closely associated with painting, and painters such as Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and others.

Abstract Expressionism in Quotes[edit]

sorted chronologically, by date of the quotes

1940s[edit]

  • It came into existence because I had to paint it. Any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt explanation of the inexplicable, could only destroy it.
    • Jackson Pollock (1947), on his painting 'She wolf'; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 87
  • When I am 'in' my painting, I am not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a short of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well..
    • Jackson Pollock (1947), in: 'Possibilities', Vol. 1, no 1, winter 1947-48; as quoted in Jackson Pollock, Elizabeth Frank, New York, 1983, p. 68
  • Sometimes I wonder, laying in a great black stripe on a canvas, what animal bones (or horns) are making the furrows of my picture.. ..black grows deeper and deeper, darker and darker before me. It menaces me like a black gullet. I can bear it no longer. It is monstrous. It is unfathomable. 'As the thought comes to me to exorcise and transform this black with a white drawing, it has already become a surface.. .Now I have lost all fear, and begin to draw on the black surface' [Hofmann is referring here to a quote of Jean Arp ]. Only love – for painting, in this instance – is able to cover the fearful void.
    • Hans Hofmann, in: 'Search for the Real', Hans Hofmann, Addison Gallery of modern Art, 1948
  • Jackson has broken the ice for us.
    • Willem de Kooning (1948), cited in: Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 130; His comment on Pollock’s drip paintings, first shown at Betty Parsons gallery.
  • The texture of experience is prior to everything else.
    • Willem de Kooning (1948), in the period of making his 'Excavation', cited in: Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 150
  • The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer. As examples of such obstacles, I give (among others) memory, history or geometry, which are swamps of generalization from which one might pull out parodies of ideas (which are ghosts) but never an idea in itself. To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.
    • Mark Rothko (October 1949), in Tiger's Eye, vol 1, no 9; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, edited by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 170*

1950s[edit]

  • It is disastrous to name ourselves.
    • Willem de Kooning (1950), cited in: 'A constant searching of oneself' in Abstract Expressionism, Barbara Hess, Taschen, 2205, p. 6
    • The answer of De Kooning in a panel discussion in 1950 when the former director of the New York museum of modern Art, w:Alfred H. Barr, Jr., demanded: We should have a name for which we can blame the artists – for once in history!
  • I am always in the picture somewhere. The amount of space I use I am always in, I seem to move around in it. And there seems to be a time when I lose sight of what I wanted to do, and then I am out of it. If the picture has a countenance I keep it. If it hasn't, I throw it away.
    • Willem de Kooning (1950), quoted in: Modern Artists in America, First Series, eds. R. Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, B. Karpel, 1952 p. 12
  • Painting is aesthetic enjoyment; I want to be a 'poet'. As an artist I must conform to my nature. My nature has a lyrical as well as a dramatic disposition. Not one day is the same. One day I feel wonderful to work and I feel an expression, which shows in the work. Only with a very clear mind on a clear day I can paint without interruptions and without food because my disposition is like that. My work should reflect my moods and the greatest enjoyment I had when I did the work.
  • Hans Hofmann (1950), in 'Artists' Session at Studio 35'; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 225
  • The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and the other inner forces.. ..the modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating..
    • Jackson Pollock, in an interview by William Wright, Summer 1950 [for broadcasting, but never used as such]; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990, pp. 139-140
  • ..with experience it seems to be possible to control the flow of paint, to a great extent, and I don't use – I don't use the accident – 'cause I deny the accident.. ..it's quite different from working, say, from a still life where you set up objects and work directly from them. I do have a general notion of what I'm about and what the results will be. I approach painting in the same sense as one approaches drawing, that is, it's direct..
    • Jackson Pollock, in an interview by William Wright, Summer 1950 [for broadcasting, but never used as such]; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990, p. 144
  • Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't meant it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment. Only he didn't know it.
    • Jackson Pollock, in: 'Unframed Space', interview with Berton Roueché, in 'The New Yorker' 1950-08-05; as quoted in The Grove Book of Art Writing: Brilliant Words on Art from Pliny the Elder to Damien Hirst, ed. Martin Gayford and Karen Wright, p. 546
  • We are getting mixed up with the French tradition. In talking about the necessity to 'finish' a thing, we then said American painters 'finish' a thing that looks 'unfinished', and the French, they 'finish' it. I have seen Matisse's that were more 'unfinished' and yet more 'finished' than any American painters. Matisse was obviously in a terrific emotion at the time and he was more 'unfinished' than 'finished'.
    • William Baziotes, in Artists' Session at Studio 35, 1950, as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990.p. 216
  • The thing that interests me is that today painters do not have to go to a subject-matter outside themselves. Modern painters work in a different way. They work from within. [1951, radio interview]
    • Jackson Pollock, in Lives of the great twentieth century artists, Edward Lucie-Smith, London, 1986, p. 263
  • The eye seems to be responding to something living.
    • William Baziotes (1952), in Modern Artists in America, R. Motherwell et al. eds., First series, New York 1952, p. 100
  • We followed Romany Marie from Eighth Street, where Gorky once gave a chalk talk on Cubism, to several other locations. Her place came closer to being a Continental café with its varied types of professionals than any other place I knew. It was in Marie's where we once formed a group, Graham, Edgar Levy, Resnikoff, de Kooning, Gorky and myself, being asked to join. This was short-lived. We never exhibited and we lasted in union about thirty days. Our only action was to notify the Whitney Museum that we were a group and would only exhibit in the 1935 abstract show if all were asked. Some of us were, some exhibited, some didn't, and that ended our group. But we were all what was then termed abstractionists. [impression of the late 1930's]
  • The talk was mostly of ideas in painting [1940's]. There was an unconscious collaboration between artists. Whether you agreed or disagreed was of no consequence. It was exciting and you were compelled to paint over your head.. .If your painting was criticized adversely, you either imitated someone to give it importance, or you simply suffered and painted harder to make your feelings on canvas convincing.. .What does happen when artists meet is that we are able to see more clearly the unfolding of character as time goes on.
    • William Baziotes, in his text for the symposium 'The Creative process', Art Digest Vol. 28, no 8, 15; January 1954, p. 33
    • Baziotes is referring to the many art-debates and exchanges between the New York, Abstract Expressionist artists
  • I don't care for 'abstract expressionism'.. ..and it is certainly not 'non-objective', and not 'non-representational' either. I'm very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time. But when you're painting out of your consciousness, figures are bound to emerge. We're all of us influenced by Freud, I guess. I've been a Jungian for a long time.. .Painting is a state of being.. .Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.
    • Jackson Pollock, in an interview, 1956; as quoted in Conversations with Artists, by Seldon Rodman, New York, Capricorn Books, 1961, pp. 84-85
  • The important thing is that Clyff Still – you know his work? – and Rothko, and I – we've changed the nature of painting.. ..I don't mean there aren't any other good painters. Bill [= Willem de Kooning is a good painter, but he's a 'French' painter [by following the more aesthetic 'French' influence]. I told him so, the last time I saw him after his last show.. ..all those pictures in his last show start with an image. You can see it even though he's covered it up, or tried to.. .Style – that's the French part of it. He has to cover it up with style..
    • Jackson Pollock, in an interview, 1956; as quoted in Conversations with Artists, by Seldon Rodman, New York, Capricorn Books, 1961, pp. 84-85

1960s[edit]

  • There is no unity or organisation or even aesthetic unity [in Abstract Expressionism / w:New York School (art), but we do have a very strong bond in our defense, but we also are strongest in our own individual identity. Our effort, I think, is all shooting off in independent directions. And the artists themselves will not admit to the existence of the New York School. They won't admit to any classification, and most of those painters known as Abstract Expressionists are the first to say they are not.
    • David Smith, in an interview with w:David Sylvester (1960), edited for BBC broadcasting: first published in 'Living Arts', April 1964; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 12
  • ..Recently I was at the home of w:Thomas Hess and he had a painting hanging there and I said to my wife: 'Is that one of my paintings?'. And she said: 'Well, it looks like one of yours from around 1942'. But then we realized that it wasn't one of my but one of Baziote's paintings.. ..at that time , 1942, the differences in our paintings may have seemed very great, but now [1960] the difference is not so great apparently.. .For example; in the early forties Rothko and I decided to paint a certain subject matter. Perhaps if we saw some of those paintings now.. ..they might not seem so different as they did at the time. However, at no point was there ever any sort of a doctrine or a programma or anything that would make a school. I think it was simply a situation in which all of the painters were at that time; they were trying to break away from certain things.
    • Adolph Gottlieb (March 1960), in an interview with David Sylvester, edited for broadcasting by the BBC - first published in 'Living Arts', June 1963; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by w:David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, pp. 27-28
  • We had certain common assumptions. We hung around together and we also talked a lot about painting. The one thing we did agree upon was that a certain group of painters respected each other's work and I think that the same group of painters still respect.. .I think that's why we have been able to remain friendly. even though we may disagree on specific works or have certain reservations about the other man's point of view.. .That is why a particular group has more or less gone through this period of approximately fifteen year as a group.
    • Adolph Gottlieb (March 1960), in an interview with David Sylvester, edited for broadcasting by the BBC - first published in 'Living Arts', June 1963; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, pp. 30-31
  • Before 1940 there was relatively little Abstract art in America. Most of it was relatively geometric versions of Cubism, or of Mondrian and De Stijl, or of Arp reliefs, and the like. So that when our painting first appeared, the critics at once realized that to describe it as 'abstract' would be misleading.. .In America, the word (I suppose taken from Germany) for something highly emotional is 'expressionist', and some critic, either in the New Yorker or the New York Times then called it 'Abstract Expressionism', meaning that this was a very emotional art, but an abstract one.
    • Robert Motherwell (March 1960), in an interview with David Sylvester, edited for broadcasting by the BBC - first published in 'Metro', 1962; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 80
  • I mean, the official definition of Surrealism is to make a work automatically without a priori aesthetic or moral conditions, which is exactly what we do [the artists in the New York School / 'Abstract Expressionism']. At the same time Surrealism was an assault, - with a few exceptions: Giacometti, Arp and Miro - on the 'purity' of painting. I mean mean, on making painting - means themselves speak, without reliance on literature; and that second insistence of Surrealism, Americans really rejected. So that historically.. .'Abstract Expressionism' is in part, I think, a fusion of certain Surrealist means, above all plastic 'automatism' with the Cubist's insistence that the picture speaks as a picture in strictly pictorial language.
    • Robert Motherwell (March 1960), in an interview with w:David Sylvester, edited for broadcasting by the BBC - first published in 'Metro', 1962; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 82
  • [to Adolph Gottlieb:] Coming to New York for the first time [David Sylvester was an English modern art-critic], I've had feelings in many ways that the painting of the New York School is as much as rooted in the New York landscape and the kind of movement and pattern in the New York landscape as Impressionist painting is rooted in Argenteuil [near Paris] or Renaissance painting is rooted in Tuscany [Italy]. And certainly de Kooning has told me how much his painting owes to motifs taken from New York. Are you yourself conscious in your own painting..? ..do you think that the geographic qualities of New York have made you paint in a different way from what you might have been painting had you been on the West Coast or in the Middle West or in Europe? [ Gotllieb's short answer: Definitely I am! I feel a certain rhythm in New York.. ..there is a tempo in the life of New York..]
    • David Sylvester (March 1960), in his interview with Adolph Gottlieb, edited for broadcasting by the BBC - first published in 'Living Arts', June 1963; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, pp. 32-33
  • If the label 'Abstract Expressionism' means anything, it means painterliness: loose, rapid handling, or the look of it; masses that blotted and fused instead of shapes that stayed distinct; large and conspicuous rhythms; broken color, uneven saturations or densities of paint, exhibited brush, knife, of finger marks – in short, a constellation of qualities like those defined by Heinrich Wölfflin when he extracted his notion of Malerische [= painterly] from Baroque art.
    • Clement Greenberg (1962) in 'After Abstract Expressionism', Art International, 25 October 1962
  • In 'Abstract Expressionism' the paintings symbolize the idea of ground-directedness as opposed to object-directedness. You put something down, react to it, put something else down, and the painting itself becomes a symbol of this. The difference is that rather than symbolize this ground-directedness I do [in Pop art ] an object-directed appearing thing. There is humor here.. .Pop Art makes the statement that ground-directedness is not a quality that the painting has because of what it looks like...
    • Roy Lichtenstein (1963), in 'What is Pop Art? Interviews with eight painters', G. R. Swenson 'Art News 67', November 1963, pp. 25-27
  • The artist's tool or the traditional artist's brush and maybe even oil paint are all disappearing very quickly. We use mostly commercial paint, and we generally tend toward lager brushes. In a way, 'Abstract Expressionism' started this all. De Kooning used house painter's brushes and house painters' techniques.
    • Frank Stella (1966), in 'Questions to [Frank] Stella and [Donald] Judd', Bruce Glaser, in 'Art New 65' no 5, September 196 p. 120
  • One could stand in front of any Abstract Expressionist work for a long time, and walk back and forth, and inspect the depths of the pigment and the inflection and all the painterly brushwork for hours. But I wouldn't particularly want to do that and also I wouldn't ask anyone to do that in front of my paintings. To go further, I would like to prohibit them from doing that in front of my painting. That's why I make the paintings the way they are, more or less.
    • Frank Stella (1966), in 'Questions to [Frank] Stella and [Donald] Judd', Bruce Glaser, in 'Art New 65' no 5, September 196 p. 122
  • When we are honest – that's my saying – if we are honest then we will reveal ourselves. But we do not have to make an effort to be individualistic, different from others. You see that is the nonsense of the last 15, 20 years Josef Albers refers here rather critically to American Abstract Expressionism]. What is wrong there is that everyone wants to be different from the already different ones. And then they ended up all alike. And we are tired of that. And the youngsters feel that now. And they don't continue, you see. They see this will not last. These exaggerated performers always speak in the highest dramatic voice. And in order to achieve it get always drunk before you come to action. Sick. It's over. So I'm quite critical against many of my colleagues. It is not their self-expression. What makes me to be more than my neighbor only when I think I have to say something more than he can. That is self-disclosure!
    • Josef Albers (1968), in 'Oral history interview with Josef Albers', conducted by Sevim Fesci, 22 June – 5 July 1968, for the 'Archives of American Art', Smithsonian Institution,

1970s[edit]

  • People keep on wanting fetish figures, and things like that are very popular. That's pop art. There was an enormous resistance to Abstract Expressionism and there still is to that school, which is not dead at all. But Pop art came as a reaction to that because kids can't paint abstract expressionism unless they're under five year of age. Because it really is tremendously hard work and it's very challenging. But the point is, people love an immediately recognizable word – if you put a word in anything, they lie it.. .I am not interested in culture at all. Once a work of art has gotten into the culture, its dead as far as I'm concerned. I think there is a difference between art and culture. Or as the sage once said, 'Art is what we do; culture is what is done to us'.
    • Carl Andre in: Artists talks 1969 – 1977, ed. Peggy Gale, The Press N.S.C.A.D, Nova Scotia, Canada 2004 pp. 22-23
  • I have attempted to develop my thinking in such a way that the work I've done is not me – not to confuse my feelings with what I produced. I didn't want my work to be an exposure of my feelings. Abstract Expressionism was so lively – personal identity and painting were more or less the same, and I tried to operate the same way. But I found I couldn't do anything that would be identical with my feelings. So I worked in such a way that I could say that it’s not me. That accounts for the separation.
    • Jasper Johns, as quoted in Jasper Johns: 'I have attempted to develop my thinking', Vivien Raynor, Artnews 72 no. 3, March 1973, p. 20-22
  • Photography is more than a means of recording the obvious. It is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever, whether it be a face or a flower, a place or a thing, a day or a moment. The camera is a perfect companion. It makes no demands, imposes no obligations. It becomes your notebook and your reference library, your microscope and your telescope. It sees what you are too lazy or too careless to notice, and it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.
    • w:Aaron Siskind, cited in: The Amateur Photographer's Handbook, (1973), p. vi
  • I think I had been badly affected by.. ..the romance of 'Abstract Expressionism'. ..particularly as it filtered out to places like Princeton and around the country, which was the idea of the 'artist as a terrifically sensitive ever-changing, ever ambitious person', particularly [described] in magazines like 'Art News' and 'Arts', which I read religiously.. .I began to feel very strongly about finding a way that wasn't so wrapped up in the hullabaloo.. ..something that stable in a sense, something that wasn't constantly a record of your sensitivity, a record of flux. [reaction on a question about gesture panting ]
    • Frank Stella, in Rubin, p. 13; as quoted in The New York school – the painters & sculptors of the fifties, Irving Sandler, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978, p. 307

1970 - 2000[edit]

  • The best works are often those with the fewest and simplest elements.. ..until you look at them a little more, and things start to happen.
    • Clyfford Still, as quoted in Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 137
  • It was Elaine de Kooning who perhaps best described the nature of Abstract Expressionism when she wrote: 'The main difference, then, between abstract and non-abstract art is that the abstract artists does not have to choose a subject. But whether or not he chooses, he always ends up with one.'
    • w:Mary F. Francy quotes Elaine de Kooning, in her biography-notes: 'De Kooning, Elaine', for 'Dictionary of Women-artists, Vol. 1, ed. Delia Gaze, Taylor & Francis, 1997, p.442

published after 2000[edit]

  • 'We agree only to disagree.'
    According to w:Irvin Sandler, writer and observer of the art scene, this was the unwritten motto of that loose grouping of artists in New York in the 1940s and 50s who are generally known as 'Abstract Expressionists' or 'the first generation of the New York School'.
    • w:Barbara Hess in A constant searching of oneself, artbook Abstract Expressionism by Barbara Hess, Taschen, 2005, p. 6
  • Surrealism was one of the influential trends with which American artists were coming to terms, in particular, when the coming to-power of the National Socialists in Germany and the outbreak of the second World War forced numerous exponents of the surrealist movement to emigrate to the United States.
    • w:Barbara Hess in A constant searching of oneself, artbook Abstract Expressionism by Barbara Hess, Taschen, 2005, pp. 6-7
  • In his [ Clement Greenberg's essay 'After Abstract Expressionism'.. ..he listed the characteristics of 1950's gestural abstraction [in America], not only to describe them but also to underline how this approach differed from the crisp geometric efforts of the American 'non-objective' artists of the 1930s and the lean, color-based compositions of the painters Color Field who rose to prominence in the 1960's.
  • In 'Notes on Color Field Painting', w:Karen Wilkin, in Color as Field – American Painting 1950 – 1975, American Federations of Art, in ass. With Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007, p. 11

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