Abstract Expressionism and the Cold War


Cecil Beaton, The New Soft Look © 1951 by The Condé Nast Publications.

Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again. (Willem de Kooning, 1956)

On March 1, 1951 Vogue magazine published four pages of photographs by Cecil Beaton, in which two models showed the latest fashion creations in front of Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist, Number 28, Number 27, and Autumn Rhythm. The Vogue photographs exemplify the dichotomy of American culture in the 1950s: the contrast between Pollock’s paintings and the dresses emphasized the split between conformity within Cold War culture and the avant-garde modernism of post-war America. When Christian Dior introduced his New Look shortly after WWII, bringing back the corseted hour-glass-figure look, as well as lavish skirts and excessive fabrics, he undid the Chanel revolution of the comfort of jerseys and slacks. The fashion industry seemed to return to pre-WWI bourgeois values and tastes. Beaton’s photographs of the Spring-ball gowns portray a type of the post-war woman: an apolitical upper-middle-class consumer socially integrated in post-war conformity.

Autumn Rhythm

Pollock’s paintings, on the other hand, are a challenge to social convention. They reject the materialism and the driving values of capitalist society, invoking instead a deeper psychological reality, one of abstraction. Vogue magazine itself acts as a space in which the two worlds come together and are presented to the public. While many women’s magazines advocated conservative conformity by celebrating domesticity and motherhood, other magazines, as for example Life magazine, helped popularize Jackson Pollock’s work beyond the artistic community. In August 1949, Life featured a full-color portrait of the artist leaning against his Number Nine, along with an article entitled: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” While the Vogue photographs helped making Pollock a celebrity (Pollock’s reaction is documented in a letter he wrote to his friend, Alfonso Ossorio, stating matter-of-factly that, “the issue of Vogue has three pages of my paintings (with models of course) will send copy.”), they represent a curious mix of consumerism, conformity, post-war nostalgia for luxury, as well as an artistic vision in capturing the multiple layers and essence of an age.


Abstract Expressionism and the New York School are two names given by art critics to painters whose work was popularized in New York in the 1940s and 50s. The group included, among others, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. The two main art critics of the time who celebrated Abstract Expressionism and the rise of American avant-garde were Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. The term Abstract Expressionism was first coined by the critic Robert Coates in 1946, describing the paintings of Hans Hoffmann.Yet, there was no uniform style uniting the New York painters in the way Surrealism, for example, joined the avant-garde artists in Paris. Abstract Expressionist paintings ranged in style from the influences of Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism, to experimentations with Freudian and Jungian theories of myth, to a complete rejection of symbolism and allusion, as pioneered by Vasily Kandinsky. However, the New York painters did seem to agree on one thing, that the notion of abstraction was the appropriate imagery of their time. Many of them took abstraction to an unprecedented level (especially Pollock, Newman, and Rothko) by detaching their images from any association with the real world. This radical detachment allowed the critics to claim the “American-type painting” as an achievement of the post-war generation of American artists, and to proclaim the shift of the artistic and intellectual stronghold from Paris to New York.

Abstract art developed in several stages. Cubism was one of the first moves to “destroy” the object or reality portrayed, distorting appearances, yet retaining a link to the physical world nonetheless. Pablo Picasso characterized his work as a “sum of destructions,” claiming that “there is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.” In 1947 and 1948, Jackson Pollock would prove Picasso wrong, creating the first “drip” paintings and eliminating all connections or allusions to the physical world. Artistically, it was a revolutionary break-through; culturally it revealed the psychological condition of the post-war generation artists embarking on a subconscious quest for truth and leaving the war-torn, atomic reality behind; and geographically it meant that the home of the avant-garde and cutting edge creativity had become New York City. Theoretically, the elimination of the object and the connection to reality in art meant that artists no longer needed to make cultural or historical references in art; they were no longer interested in communicating with the viewer or the outside world. This break is significant because in order for culture to move forward, it has to discard former, outmoded values, forms, styles and techniques. Clement Greenberg claimed that the “most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment,’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.” The Abstract Expressionists found a way for what Harold Rosenberg called “extinguishing the object” and making the canvas into “an arena in which to act – rather than reproduce, redesign, analyze, or express an object… What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”


This break with tradition was achieved gradually through the influence of European modernism (especially Surrealist theories of the unconscious). Pollock claimed that the source of his painting was the unconscious; “when I’m in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. 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.” As early as 1943, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman published a statement saying that, “no possible set of notes can explain our paintings. Their explanation must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker.” They believed that their function as artists was to “make the spectator see the world our way – not his way.” This expression of the artist’s inner world, rather than of a world seen by the average onlooker, contrasted sharply with the middle-class conformity practiced by the rest of the population. Various artists described their artistic acts as different kinds of freedom of expression and attacks on conformity. Willem de Kooning explained that “the subject matter in the abstract is space. [The artist] fills it with attitude. The attitude never comes from himself alone.” In the case of the Abstract Expressionists, the attitude was a reaction to the social and political values of the Cold War. Newman claimed that “instead of using outlines, instead of making shapes or setting off spaces, [his] drawing declares the space.” He explained this declaration of space as an “assertion of freedom” and “denial of dogmatic principles.” Mark Rothko described his pictures as dramas and the shapes in the pictures as performers. He claimed that the “disguise must be complete. The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.” This de-familiarization is equivalent to Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical technique of alienation in the 1930s and 40s, as well as Gertrude Stein’s innovative writing style in Tender Buttons (1914). De-familiarization expressed the need for distance from the objects or characters in order to gain a clear critical perspective on them.

In 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre observed of Americans, “it is when he is acting like everyone else that he feels most reasonable and most American; it is in displaying his conformity that he feels freest.” Critique of conformity values was taken up by intellectuals and artists in a quest for new ways of defining culture. Many statements were published by artists and critics between the years of 1943 and 1952 in response to public resistance to the new art. Pollock’s claim in a 1950 interview, that the viewers of his paintings “should not look for, but look passively – and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for” shows that the avant-garde artists had to educate the public about their way of painting. Rosenberg described the new type of painting as “action painting,” claiming that “the gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value – political, aesthetic, moral.” This need to resist social conformity and to take action and responsibility for one’s existence was becoming a prominent intellectual position after WWII.



Existentialism celebrated individualism and freedom, and presented a search for new ways of defining humanity. Sartre and Camus insisted that human beings must recognize that they shape themselves. Sartre’s famous claim that “man is nothing but that which he makes of himself” and that “man is freedom” starkly contradicted American conformity. The American avant-garde, however, embraced the existentialist notion of affirming being through action. Albert Camus believed (as Nietzsche before him) that artists have the ability to transcend history and create new values. Greenberg acknowledged that the Action Painters were isolated and alienated by the public, but in a way this isolation also allowed them more freedom to develop artistically, without having to justify their actions. Newman was one of the few Abstract Expressionists to define his art as a political statement, claiming that his paintings meant “the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” Adolph Gottlieb pointed out that abstract art is “the expression of the neurosis which is our reality.” In many ways, the violence and structured disorder of abstract art reflected the chaos of atomic age. Instead of celebrating Abstract Expressionists for their aspirations, the future generation of Pop artists would dismiss them as “neurotic” and even “boring.”

The Cubists deconstructed reality, deforming objects into abstractions. Surrealists presented multiple realities through symbols and codes of the unconscious. Abstract Expressionists, in their most innovative works, no longer drew any connections to reality. The viewer now assumed the role of bridging the connection to reality. Granted free range of interpretation, the viewer could now create meaning, rather than rely on society or the critics for interpretation. As Joan Didion pointed out, “the ability to think for one’s self depends on one’s mastery of language.” Abstract Expressionism was eventually dethroned in the 1960s by Pop Art – an art the people could relate to. Critic Arthur Danto called Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes “the end of art” – since the high art failed to reflect the masses, the masses willed its own, easy, more applicable, more obvious, art. But the artists had learned how to turn even that art into critique, discarding Greenberg’s discomfort with the Kitsch (i.e. “not real art”).


In 1947 Christian Dior presented his new collection in Paris, establishing the new fashion style that would prevail into the 1960s. The New Look appeared to declare the end of poverty, general depression, and wartime fabric shortages. It was a glamorous, feminine look that emphasized sensuality, delicacy, fragility, and that put a radical end to the functional and casual “working woman” clothes of the inter-war years. The Look accentuated female sexual characteristics (through small, corseted waist, padded bras, naked shoulders, high heels), thereby contributing to the sexualization of women that emerged in post-war society. The media generously contributed to the upholding of the feminine image, an image of mothers and wives rather than independent career women and professionals. The New Look was for women who needed to be taken care of and supported; the immobility of the crinoline skirts, the awkwardness of the corsets, and the discomfort of high heels would prevent a woman from an overly-active life. The 1950s was also the age of tight sweaters and pointy bras. Interestingly, most post-war designers were men (Chanel did not make a comeback until the 1960s). In a way, the New Look was a male fantasy of women as passive sexual objects and displayers of their husband’s wealth and status. There was an increase in the ornamental value of the female and a decrease in the functional value; and this was particularly problematic for the women painters of the New York School.

Lee Krasner met Jackson Pollock in 1943 and married in 1945. At the time they met, she was an abstract artist exhibiting her work at New York Galleries along with the other Abstract Expressionists. After they were married, Krasner’s artistic production declined; she claimed (in an interview after his death) that her own work became irrelevant, and that “he was the important thing.” Art critics have described Krasner’s work as “derivative, feminine and decorative;” Arthur Danto claimed that “there is no recurrent touch, or whatever may be the pictorial equivalent of voice, in Krasner’s canvases”; there is only “the echo of other voices” – chiefly, while he lived, that of Pollock. Her paintings were also seen as “tidy” versions of Pollock’s violent bursts of colour. Perhaps the harshest rejection of Krasner as an independent artist was the incident in 1952, when Pollock left his dealer, Betty Parsons, and Parsons consequently dropped Krasner. Such general devaluation of women artists made it incredibly difficult for women to compete in the art world of the Cold War era. Women were simply not recognized for their work; the few women associated with the New York School were Lee Krasner; Elaine de Kooning, who was a painter and a model before she married Willem de Kooning in 1943; and Helen Frankenthaler who married Robert Motherwell in 1958. Other female artists of the time included (among others) Louise Bourgeois, Jeanne Miles, and Dorothy Dehner. However, their art, no matter how abstract, was not included in the mainstream of the movement.


Very few women could paint for a living. Moreover, the social values of the McCarthy era became particularly problematic for women in general; magazines were reassuring their readers that women only worked until they got married, not offering any possible alternative scenarios. In 1946, child psychologist Benjamin Spock published his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, suggesting that if women had children, they should not be working. Such domesticity and motherhood propaganda could be found in almost all spheres of public life. When a constitutional Equal Right Amendment failed to pass in August 1946, the New York Times claimed, “Motherhood cannot be amended.”

Pollock’s rise to fame, however, was quite legendary. He was the typical American hero: rough, hard-drinking, silent, anti-intellectual, aggressive, and solitary, like the action-oriented heroes portrayed by Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart. Pollock became the first prominent Abstract Expressionist partially because he fit the mythos of American frontier heroism. Greenberg celebrated Pollock as the great American painter, making him a symbol of American high culture and parading him to the international art world as someone authentically American. However, many of the New York School painters were either not born in the U.S. (Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko), or were children of Eastern European immigrants (Greenberg and Krasner). Pollock personified the cult of masculinity that had permeated American society in the decades of the two world wars. The artistic profession was raised to a higher level of “manliness” during the years of Depression. Artists could participate in the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the 1930s; they became workers, executing public commissions for public buildings and projects. The Federal Art Project not only provided Pollock and Krasner (among others) with economic benefits, it also allowed them to associate with other abstract painters in New York and develop their innovative style and individual technique. The painters of the New York School retained relative independence during the Depression which consequently allowed them to emerge as a leading art movement. During the Cold War prosperity, on the other hand, the individuality of modern art confronted direct attacks by conservative members of the government.

Lee Krasner

The cultural split during the 1950s was exemplified by two distinct public voices: the conservative voice of Senator Dondero, condemning modern art along with Communism, and the liberal voice of the vice-president of the Museum of Modern Art, Rene d’Harnoncourt, who baptized modern art as the “foremost symbol of democratic society.” In 1949, two years after the Hollywood hearings that condemned the “Hollywood Ten” and instituted blacklisting procedures of all studio employees suspected of Communist allegiance, in a widely publicized congressional speech entitled “Modern Art Shackled to Communism,” U.S. Representative George Dondero went from citing Kandinsky’s onetime friendship with Trotsky, and Picasso’s self characterization as communist to labeling four of the Abstract Expressionists as communist-allied artists. Indeed, when in 1944, Pablo Picasso joined the Communist Party, he gave a statement, claiming, “I have wished, by drawing and by colour, since those are my weapons, to reach even further into an understanding of the world, in order that this understanding might bring us each day an increase in liberation.” Picasso is also famous for saying, “painting is not made to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.” Almost all the painters of the New York School started out as Cubists or incorporated cubist influences into their style; for Pollock, Guernica was an epiphany, awakening him to abstract painting.

Dondero believed that art (not just abstract art) was a communist weapon used to bring down the American government, and that the artist was a soldier of the revolution. He went on complaining, “what have we, the plain American people, done to deserve this sore affliction that has been visited upon us so direly; who has brought down this curse upon us?” Dondero’s main concern was “the intolerable situation where public schools, colleges, and universities, art and technical schools, invaded by a horde of foreign art manglers, are selling our young men and women a subversive doctrine of ‘isms,’ Communist-inspired and Communist-connected which have one common, boasted goal – the destruction of our cultural tradition and priceless heritage.” Needless to say such outbursts triggered a passionate debate within the art world, making art critics formulate direct and indirect responses to such accusations.


Ben Shahn pointed out that “Mr. Dondero’s remarks almost duplicated, epithet for epithet, an abusive essay against ‘decadent Western art’ that had appeared some months earlier in an official Soviet publication.” It was also problematic that the American government claimed to advocate liberal democracy abroad and get away with McCarthyism at home. In 1953, Shahn also stated that, “people of the basest ignorance are sitting in judgment upon art, upon the universities, upon the very meaning of thinking itself. What tragic buffoonery lies in the investigation by an FBI man – any FBI man, even the best of them – into the meaning of art, into the motives of any humanist or liberal in politics, into whether education is or is not subversive, or whether a poem, or a piece of music, or a novel is a Communist threat!”

Wanting to rid the country of “foreign vermin” also sounded frighteningly similar to the language employed by the Nazis and their rejection of “degenerate art.” Critics like Greenberg and Rosenberg, who saw Abstract Expressionism as the first American high art, wondered why Dondero did not explain what exactly his “cultural tradition and priceless heritage” are. Greenberg, in particular, was an advocate of a strong national high culture. Despite Dondero’s attempts to make abstract art un-American, Greenberg did help make Abstract Expressionism the first internationally successful American art.


As Christine Lindey pointed out in her book on Cold War art, “the very desire to seek extremes, to reveal taboos, to allow free range to the imagination, implies the existence of repression.” The “century of fear” forced its painters to retreat into abstraction; their paintings seemed to “live in a time before the emergence of consciousness and being, or to be fantastic landscapes of a time after the extinction of consciousness and being.” In a world of the Atomic bomb, space travel, and opposing spheres of influence, art had reached a new level of expression. The world of the known, of certainty, and of symbolic representation had no longer any meaning to the post-WWII generation of artists. New terrains had to be explored, which perhaps alienated many people, yet in the end were still shaped to fit the national myth of frontier individualism.

Abstract art expressed the underlying unease and anxiety experienced through the atomic reality; a reality which had to be suppressed in order to retain normal social function. The veneer of mass consumerism had to be introduced in order to make such reality bearable. Many people did not want to be reminded of their (sub)conscious fears by looking at a painting; that was what the media was for with their anxious reports on what the Soviets were doing. No wonder the conservatives called Abstract Expressionism communist art – it went against the scheme of mass distraction and the illusion of stability that the state cultivated. Abstract art was determined to break with all illusions and everything real because in the twentieth century “real” no longer stood for the actual state of things. Abstract art thus supplanted realist art, which had become merely a version of one ideology or another.


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This entry was posted in Art, Cities, Cultural politics, Design, Fashion, Feminism, History, New York, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Abstract Expressionism and the Cold War

  1. Uwe Westphal says:

    Brilliiant article by Kat Sark. Thanks,

  2. Uwe Westphal says:

    Please see my interview with Deborah Kalb, Washington: http://bit.ly/2lV98JL
    Uwe Westphal

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