The mid-twentieth century witnessed the traumatic consequences of global industrial warfare as well as the oppressive hand of state control on the rights and freedoms of individuals. Disillusionment with the progress of Western civilization led some artists to call for a break from the past. They rejected realist styles as too easily drafted for propaganda purposes, and the ideas of most prewar avant-gardes as contaminated by their association with cultures that had performed savage acts against civilians. As the American painter Barnett Newman said, “We have to start all over again.” Western European artists, including Alberto Burri and K. O. Götz, began to work under the umbrella of art informel. Coined by the French critic Michel Tapié, the term describes an eclectic coalition advancing intuitive and spontaneous methods of painting allied with the unconscious improvisation championed by surrealism, one of the few earlier movements whose ideas were considered relevant to the postwar condition.
In the United States, a group of largely New York–based artists, many of whom had trained in realist styles at the Art Students League during the 1920s and ’30s, searched for alternatives to figurative art in the 1940s. Among them were Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, all represented here. A significant influence for this group was the Manhattan-based Hans Hofmann, an elder German artist and theorist who had “thrust painting into the future,” as Frank Stella described it, by creating works that probed the volumetric and psychological qualities of color. Proceeding with their own intensely personal explorations of the spatial and perceptual possibilities of paint using unorthodox materials and techniques, artists of the younger generation originated processes that implicated the movements of their bodies and the traces of their gestures as content. Variously referred to as abstract expressionism, action painting, and the New York school, the movement’s innovations were celebrated by some critics as an assertion of America’s cultural ascendancy.
As the works in this gallery attest, artists on both sides of the Atlantic who explored painterly abstraction shared the conviction that making art is a deeply subjective and psychologically charged enterprise.