New York School
History, Characteristics of American Abstract Expressionism.

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New York School (c.1940-60)


In A Nutshell
Influence of European Surrealist Painters
The Influence of European Modernism
Joseph Cornell
The Arrival of European Artists in New York
A New Art Movement in New York
Characteristics of the New York School
Automatism and Action-Painting in the New York School
Action and Existentialism
Colour Field Painting
Painters and Critics: In and Around the New York School

For more about movements and
styles, see: History of Art.
For details of specific styles,
see: Art Movements.

Art Works

Lavender Mist (Number 1) (1950)
National Gallery, Washington DC.
By Jackson Pollock. An iconic
example of his gestural painting:
a style known as "action painting".

Orange And Yellow (1956).
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
By Mark Rothko. Another icon
of American modern art.

Seated Woman (1943).
Metropolitan Museum, NYC.
By Willem de Kooning. An early
prototype of his "Woman" series.


In A Nutshell

The phrase "New York School" is an umbrella term usually applied to the loose-knit group of 20th-century painters based in New York City during the 1940s and 50s. Although it embraced several differing styles of painting (notably "Action-Painting" and "Colour Field"), the term has become synonymous with the art movement known as Abstract Expressionism, which was embodied by European immigrant artists such as Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) and Arshile Gorky (1905-48), and by American painters like Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Willem De Kooning (1904-97). Owing its success to a fusion of European aesthetics and American desire for social relevancy, the New York School was one of the most influential modern art movements, and helped the city to replace Paris as the world's centre of avant-garde art, reflecting the creativity and financial muscle of the New World. Many of its works are ranked alongside the greatest 20th century paintings.

Influence of European Surrealist Painters

With the French and British entrance into World War II in September 1939, artists and intellectuals began fleeing Paris, which had been the world's art capital for more than a century. Surrealism had dominated the thriving interwar art scene in Paris, but by 1942 the critical mass of the movement's key figures - Andre Breton (1896-1966), Salvador Dali (1904-89), Max Ernst (1891-1976), Andre Masson (1896-1987), and Yves Tanguy (1900-55) - had all gone to New York. In addition great cubists, abstract artists, and others from the School of Paris had come over, too, among them Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973). Of the major artists only Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and the 73-year-old Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) remained in Paris for the duration of the war. By 1940, the centre of the art world was already shifting to New York, preparing the ground on which the nascent New York School would almost immediately seize the leadership of the avant-garde.

Surrealism evolved out of the controversial Dada movement around 1924, under the direction of the poet Andre Breton. Influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, the surrealists looked to the unconscious mind as the source of artistic subject matter. In the first Surrealist Manifesto (1924) Breton defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism by which one intends to express verbally, in writing or by other method, the real functioning of the mind."



The French surrealist painter Andre Masson created his "Battle of Fishes" (1926, MOMA, New York) by spilling glue on the canvas and then pouring on sand; the sand stuck where the glue fell and he used the forms produced in this random fashion as a springboard for free association. He then modified these chance shapes with paint to accentuate the subject matter of his associations. The finished painting reads like a poem rather than a narrative; instead of interacting in logical ways, each image moves off into seemingly different trains of thought. The underlying meaning in the work relies on metonymy, as in the symbolism of a dream where ideas are represented, often cryptically, by associated ideas. This is a typically surrealist application of "psychic automatism. Automatism would become a central source of form for the artists of the New York School.

After 1930 many surrealists undertook a more literal, illusionistic rendering of dream images. In a work like "The Voice of Space" (1931, Guggenheim Museum, New York) by Rene Magritte, for example, the free-associative element resides in the selection of the imagery rather than in the technique or style (which, in this case, is academic illusionism). Despite its conservative style illusionistic surrealism continued the movement's radical exploration of the content and workings of the unconscious mind, although it was the abstract wing of the surrealist movement that influenced members of the New York School in the forties.

In a nutshell, European Surrealist artists provided the intellectual and aesthetic ingredients upon which the New York School was founded. The other half of the mix - the creative drive and sense of social obligation - came from the strong Protestant work ethic instilled in American artists by the experience of the Depression and the Federal Art Project of the 1930s. The Project was responsible for producing hundreds of thousands of works, and by 1936 it employed some 6,000 artists, most living in New York. It triggered the formation of a real community of artists for the first time, especially in Greenwich Village. Stuart Davis, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, David Smith and Mark Rothko - that is, most of the leading members of the New York School - all worked on the Project. Indeed, those (like Barnett Newman) whose employment staus disqualified them from participating in it, felt like outcasts.

The Influence of European Modernism

Despite the desire of many prominent figures on the interwar New York art scene to throw off the weight of European modernism (some two decades after the hugely successful Armory Show of 1913), the latter's presence grew dramatically in the 1930s. The founding of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929 made available magnificent works by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Van Gogh (1853-1890), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Picasso and Leger, as well as special exhibitions of abstract art, and members of the Bauhaus design school. In 1939 the Valentine Gallery, which had held particularly notable shows of Matisse and Brancusi in the twenties, exhibited Picasso's enormously influential painting "Guernica", after which the Museum of Modern Art kept it on display continuously for nearly forty years. His other equally influential masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, MOMA) had arrived in New York the previous year.

The New Art Circle gallery, founded by J. B. Neumann in 1923, was among the earliest but by no means the only place where young artists might see German expressionism - including works by Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Paul Klee (1879-1940), and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). In addition the Gallatin Collection - with works by Cezanne, Seurat, the cubists, Mondrian, and such artists of the Russian avant-garde as Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and El Lissitzky (1890-1941) - went on loan to New York University in Washington Square; and although the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later to become the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) did not open until 1939, Guggenheim regularly opened his definitive collection of Kandinsky's abstract paintings to young artists in his New York apartment from 1936 on.

Picasso's "Guernica" had particular importance to younger painters because it combined a powerful political statement with the best European formal sophistication. The monumental scale and powerful expressionism of the work, and the use of a cubism vocabulary for a tragic theme, set an important precedent for American artists. Its influence can be seen in the use of a grand scale with a shallow cubist depth in the great drip paintings of Jackson Pollock; it underlies de Kooning's black paintings of the mid forties and Motherwell's "Elegies".

Meanwhile, European surrealism had already affected younger artists even before the arrival of the surrealists themselves. Some of it had been imported secondhand into America in the thirties by such painters as Peter Blume and Louis Guglielmi, who had studied in Europe. At the end of 1931 the Julien Levy Gallery began exhibiting the European surrealists' work and publishing translations of their writings; from 1935 the Pierre Matisse Gallery showed Miro and Masson; and the Museum of Modern Art's important "Dada, Surrealism, and Fantastic Art" exhibition of 1936 made available a stunning display of their paintings, objects, and writings. In 1942 the "Artists in Exile" show at Pierre Matisse and Duchamp's "First Papers of Surrealism" show, staged in a former mansion in New York, celebrated the arrival of the artists themselves in New York.

Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell, the American artist in assemblage and collage, began showing at Julien Levy's gallery with the surrealists, and from his first collages of 1931 Cornell demonstrates the influence of surrealism - although, as he wrote in 1936 to Alfred Barr (the Director of the Museum of Modern Art who organized "Dada, Surrealism, and Fantastic Art"), "I do not share in the subconscious and dream theories of the surrealists." Cornell told complex, mesmerizing stories with found objects, assembled in the self-contained magical worlds of his boxes. He found inspiration not only in the fantastic collages of Max Ernst, which he saw at the Julien Levy Gallery when it opened in 1931, but also in the souvenirs and old cards he saw in the shops around Times Square, in the constellations painted on the ceiling of Grand Central Station, and in any number of other common things that a less imaginative mind might overlook as ordinary.

In Cornell's "The Hotel Eden" (1945, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa), for example, the Hotel Eden seems to be a stopping place in a magical dream voyage, filled with exotic birds and strange scientific devices. Cornell seems deliberately to suggest a tattered Paradise after the Fall, linking the work to other boxes which refer to punished lovers - Adam and Eve, Paul and Virginia (from the eponymous French novel, popular in the nineteenth century), Paolo and Francesca (from Dante). The swirling spiral in the upper left may refer to the Rotary hemisphere of Marcel Duchamp, whom Cornell befriended after Duchamp's return to New York in 1942. Cornell read widely, especially in French literature, and had a fascination with Hollywood stars. But externally he led an utterly simple life. He lived on Utopia Parkway in Queens with an invalid brother, his mother, and his grandfather. He largely supported all of them, taking routine jobs in the garment industry.

The Arrival of European Artists in New York

When the Europeans finally arrived in person in New York, Marcel Duchamp and the surrealists held the limelight. They were self-confident and lived bohemian lifestyles, as if money never worried them (though many of them were exceedingly poor). They communicated a sense of conviction about the importance of art and of New York as the centre; indeed they made it seem that wherever they were was ipso facto the centre. Moreover, Breton and the other surrealists had a strong sense of belonging to a unified avant-garde that comprised artists outside surrealism as well. When Breton edited the first catalog for Art of This Century gallery owned by Peggy Guggenheim, in 1942, he included texts and manifestoes by futurists, by Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner (1884-1962), by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), and Mondrian, in addition to those by surrealists like Jean Arp (1886-1966) and himself.

Breton was also the champion of a young Afro-Cuban painter named Wifredo Lam (1902-82), who had come to Paris via Spain in 1937 at the age of 25. Picasso was taken with Lam and introduced him into artistic circles in Paris in the late thirties. This is where Lam befriended Breton, and after 1941, when Lam returned to Cuba, he remained in close touch with Breton. In Cuba in the 1940s, Lam fashioned a highly original, hybrid surrealism that melded traditions from his Afro-Carribean ancestry with both stylistic and theoretical aspects of French surrealism. In "The Eternal Present" (1945, Museum of Art, Rhode Island), for example, the femme cheval (woman-horse), of which there are three in this painting, is constituted through a partial metamorphosis from a woman into a horse, evident here especially in the heads. This transformation is quite surrealist in its genesis through unconscious association and dream-like mutation. But it also has a dynamic black spirituality with connections to the Afro-Cuban voodoo practices in which a woman, in a state of spiritual possession by the orisha (or saint), is said to be ridden by the orisha like a horse; the surrealist film maker Maya Deren actually documented a Haitian voodoo rite of this kind in "The Divine Horsemen" (1947-51). Breton's continuing links to Lam not only reflect the internationalist perspective that Breton and the other Europeans brought to the New York art scene in the early 1940s, but Lam's work and even the person of the artist himself (whose father was Chinese) also exemplify the rich mix of cultures in the New World that increasingly shaped the second half of the twentieth century and its art.

So, having the Europeans personally on the scene in New York was very different from just looking at works by them in a show or collection. The European moderns not only connected New York in a very vital way to a more international world, but they also provided a compelling new model of what an artist was. To the Europeans, art and life were inseparable and they lived this heightened existence for 24-hours a day. In conversation with the younger Americans they also imparted their insight into the more subtle formal concerns of painting, thereby implicitly encouraging them to match the aesthetics of European modernism. Associating with artists is a time-honoured way for the young to learn not just the craft, but what it means to be an artist. The presence of the Parisian vanguard in New York finally gave young Americans an opportunity to see this firsthand, creating the fertile soil out of which the new American avant-garde grew.

The Europeans found life in New York quite different from that to which they were accustomed. Paris is a city of neighborhoods and the vitality of each neighborhood radiates from its cafes. Conversation over a two-hour cup of coffee was an indispensable ingredient of Parisian intellectual life. The members of the Ecole de Paris had always frequented particular haunts in Paris; and for the surrealists it was above all the Cafe Cyrano near Pigalle, at which they would run into one another almost daily and engage in protracted discussions. Any young artist interested in surrealism could simply drop by and attach himself to the group. New York had no such tradition: the pace of life was too fast and the city too populous to make a cafe society possible. In addition the artists had to scatter to find housing quickly when they arrived, which effectively meant that no one neighbourhood could be identified with a particular movement, although Greenwich Village would become a focus for the New York School.

The young Museum of Modern Art opened its doors to the surrealists, and to some extent the Julien Levy and Pierre Matisse galleries helped compensate for the loss of the established Paris meeting places. But the most important gathering spot was the private gallery of Peggy Guggenheim, called Art of This Century. In 1942 alone she showed work by Arp, Ernst, Miro, Masson, Tanguy, Magritte, Dali, Brauner, and Giacometti. But the Art of This Century also gave one-man exhibitions to the Americans Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, William Baziotes, and Robert Motherwell. In addition there was by then a tradition of American "little magazines" that were actively publishing vanguard art, and the surrealists started up some of their own. View and VVV were particularly significant. The first issue of View came out in September 1942 under the editorship of Charles Henri Ford. At first it was mostly literary in character, but by 1944 it provided an important forum for visual artists. VVV - though it only lasted for three issues - first appeared in June 1942 and was edited by a young American sculptor named David Hare. The editorial staff of VVV included Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Claude Levi-Strauss, Andre Breton, and the Americans Robert Motherwell, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Abel, and William Carlos Williams. Through such collaborations in the galleries and journals, the presence of the European moderns soon flowered into a close liaison with the Americans.

A New Art Movement in New York

By 1943 talk of the emergence of a new movement had already begun to spread in the New York art world. In the spring of 1945 the Art of This Century gallery mounted a show called "A Problem for Critics," challenging the art press to identify this new "movement." The show included works by the abstract surrealists Jean Arp, Andre Masson, and Joan Miro, as well as by the Americans Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko. Between 1942 and 1950, the Americans in that show - together with others, of whom the most important were Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and David Smith - produced a body of work which placed American art at the forefront of the international avant-garde for the first time. As a group (which they never were in any systematic sense) these American artists came to be known as "abstract expressionists" or, as the artists themselves preferred, "the New York School." For an early example of the work of the New York School, see the 'all-over' Pasiphae (1943, Metropolitan Museum of Art) by Jackson Pollock.

Characteristics of the New York School

Art historians had begun using the term "abstract expressionism" at the end of World War I to refer to Kandinsky and other Europeans who painted abstractly with expressionist brushwork. In a 1946 review for the New Yorker, Robert Coates applied the term for the first time to the work of an American artist of the forties when he described the paintings of Hans Hofmann as "abstract Expressionist." He capitalized the E to indicate that he regarded Hofmann's work as a type of "Expressionism" in the tradition of Kandinsky, which is precisely how Hofmann had been describing himself for some time. Ironically Hofmann, of the major New York School artists, had the least in common with the rest. In addition to the difference in age and background, he continued to be preoccupied with the formal principles of European modernism over and above any conscious concern with an introspective subject matter.

Except for Hans Hofmann, who was 50 when he left Germany and 65 by the mid-1940s, the artists of the New York School faced many of the same formative cultural, philosophical, and aesthetic issues. These included: the imperative of social relevance; existentialism; the surrealists' interest in the unconscious mind leavened by an American matter-of-factness; the Mexican influence; and the formal vocabulary of European modernism - especially Kandinsky's abstract expressionism of 1910-14, Mondrian, Picasso's Guernica, interwar cubism, and abstract surrealism. From cubism they took the shallow picture space and the concern with the picture plane. The biomorphic forms and automatist elements came from surrealism and Picasso's work of the thirties. Early Kandinskys inspired some of the freedom of brushwork and the painterliness, and his moral tone fueled the ethical seriousness of purpose. To these American artists of the forties Kandinsky represented romantic emotionalism and spontaneity, as opposed to Mondrian, who stood for strict planning, the denial of personality, and intellect.

Although each of the New York School artists reacted differently to these sources, they were at roughly the same stage of personal development in a particular time (the forties) and place (New York). Except for Hofmann, they were all students in their twenties and early thirties when Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and Mexicans like Diego Rivera (1886-1957) were prominent in New York. As young men and women, many of them worked on the Federal Art Project, although between 1942 and 1949 all the major artists of the New York School except Hofmann transcended their early influences to achieve a distinctive personal style, and all placed paramount emphasis on content or meaningful subject matter in their art, which was predominantly abstract. They took this stance in opposition to the widespread practice of what they regarded as a banal formalist abstraction dominated by the American followers of Mondrian such as Uya Bolotowsky and Burgoyne Diller. In addition they all believed in the absolute individuality of the artist, for which reason they unanimously denied the idea that they coalesced into a movement. Indeed all but Hofmann objected to the term "abstract expressionism," which, they felt, linked them to the expressionist and abstract artists of preceding generations; by contrast they saw their work as arising out of unique acts of individual introspection.

The artists in this circle also had an interest in myth as a source of art. They looked to ancient Greek literature as well as to "primitive" cultures for a more authentic connection with the underlying forces of nature, especially human nature, than contemporary Western society seemed to provide. Around 1940 Pollock and Rothko in particular had begun reading the theories of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who postulated "archetypes" in the individual unconscious which belonged to a "collective unconscious," connecting all of humankind. These archetypes, he thought, manifested themselves in myth. Pollock had undergone some Jungian therapy, and in general the writings of both Jung and Freud were a major topic of discussion among educated people in the forties and fifties. Myths of rebirth and renewal had a particularly keen attraction for the artists of the New York School as a metaphor for their increasingly spontaneous methods of painting.

Yet for all that they had in common, the leading figures of the New York School had important philosophical differences too. Hofmann, for instance, disliked surrealism and shunned the psychological orientation of most of the others. Gorky centered his aesthetic on a hidden but predefined subject matter, which he transformed through psychic metamorphosis (using surrealist automatism). This procedure was directly at odds with the premises of his friends de Kooning and Pollock, who used painting as an act of discovery rather than representation. See also: Jackson Pollock's paintings (1940-56). Motherwell's persistent sense of formal continuity with French modernism, especially Matisse, set him apart from the others, and only de Kooning centered his attention for most of his career on the human figure.

The art critic Harold Rosenberg (1906-78) (who was as much a part of the group as any of the artists) once remarked that the only thing on which these artists could all agree was that there was nothing on which they could agree," and in hindsight the differences in their styles and theories of art seem as pronounced as the similarities. In a broad sense their radical individuality stood in opposition to the emergence of mass culture, which Rosenberg discussed in a 1948 essay entitled "The Herd of Independent Minds."

Automatism and Action-Painting in the New York School

Automatism seemed to be the ideal device for artists so concerned with radical individualism. The artists of the New York School viewed it as a technique for generating form that did not impose style. In the beginning Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko, and Gottlieb used automatism to create forms which they would develop through free association as the abstract surrealists Matta, Miro, and Masson had done. Then in the mid-forties Pollock, and increasingly Motherwell too, departed from the surrealist concept by using automatism as a device for objectifying an intense conscious experience as it was unfolding, rather than as a means of bringing forth unconscious material for association or of using unconscious thought processes to modify imagery. (For more, please see Automatism in Art.)

Rothko abandoned automatism entirely as he entered his mature style in the late forties; and it remained only in a more limited role in Gottlieb's work. In Gorky's mature work (from 1944) he was selecting his subject matter in a deliberate classical fashion, using automatism only to camouflage and enrich the images. Hofmann, de Kooning and Franz Kline (1910-1962) had never picked up on the surrealist technique, although the spontaneity of their improvisations resembled the gestural freedom which Pollock and Motherwell gleaned from automatism in the later forties. In the mid-forties the artists of the New York School gradually stopped evoking classical myths (to which both surrealist artists and the existentialist writers made frequent recourse) and they looked beyond surrealism toward a subject matter of even more immediate and personal introspection.

Where the surrealists attempted to disorient the viewer and provoke unconscious revelations, for which they sought parallels in the myths of antiquity, the artists of the New York School turned away from the viewer altogether and wiped out the surrealists' theatrical distance. Increasingly Pollock, Motherwell and Smith viewed automatism simply as a more direct means of conveying the subjective experience itself. For them content was intrinsic to the act of painting (or welding steel forms together, in the case of Smith) in that the process unearthed a vein of intensely felt experience on which the artist deliberated in paint. The artist lived the painting entirely in the present, and the object was left over as an artifact of that event.

In this sense a painting by Pollock, de Kooning, or Kline embodied a spontaneous act of creativity that defined the style of the painting, the identity of the artist, and even art itself, in the process of painting. These artists turned the conceptual enactment into an object. They conceived each work as an uncompleted thought, still in process, and their canvases engaged the immediacy of the present with such directness and spontaneity that today, half a century later, they look as if the paint is still wet.

In 1952 Harold Rosenberg coined the term "action painting", modelled on his intimate knowledge of de Kooning's working process. His essay, "The American Action Painters," brought into focus the paramount concern of de Kooning, Pollock, and Kline in particular (though Rosenberg did not single them out by name), with the act of painting. Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, and other remarkable women at the time also shared these aspirations in their work but, as Ann Gibson has pointed out, "they were not seen." The social hierarchy of the forties and fifties, even in the art world, simply wasn't open to the full participation of women or ethnic minorities. This began to change only at the end of the sixties. Nevertheless, for some of these women of the New York School, as for the action painters, the canvas was not a representation but an extension of the mind itself, in which the artist thought by changing the surface with his or her brush. Rosenberg saw the artist's task as a heroic exploration of the most profound issues of personal identity and experience in relation to the large questions of the human condition.

Action and Existentialism

The Depression and the Federal Art Project, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II gave rise to political activism and a mentality of action. Pollock, de Kooning, and others in their circle sought to express this with a style in which the artist defined art in the act of making it. No part of the process in an action painting is purely technical; everything is a meaningful gesture inseparable from the artist's biography, according to Rosenberg. Likewise, in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, action was the means of knowing oneself in relation to the world.

In an essay of 1944 Sartre (the leading postwar existentialist) explained: "In a word, man must create his own essence; it is in throwing himself into the world, in struggling with it, that - little by little - he defines himself." In his book "The Wall" (a classic short story of 1939) Sartre describes how confrontation with death causes the characters to reexperience everything as if new. This idea of starting from scratch with only immediate experience parallels the attitude of the New York School artists to the act of painting.

From the point of view of postwar American art, existentialism had its most significant influence from 1945 and 1946, when the works of existentialists like Kafka, Sartre, and then Heidegger began to appear in English. Works by others like Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche were all available in translation earlier and had already had an enormous effect on modern art and thought.

Colour Field Painting

Emerging slightly later than "Action-Painting", and in complete contrast to the latter's frantic gesturalism, Colour Field was a more passive, more reflective and more emotional style of abstract expressionist painting pioneered by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman (1905-70) and Clyfford Still (1904-80). Characterized by enormous works featuring broad expanses of colour, Colour Field paintings were designed to create an intimate relationship with the individual spectator. As Rothko said, "I paint big to be intimate." For more information about Colour Field, see: Mark Rothko's Paintings (1938-70).

Painters and Critics: In and Around the New York School

The painters of the New York School met frequently in certain bars (like the Cedar Tavern just above Washington Square), in automats and cafes, or in studios around Greenwich Village. The critics Clement Greenberg (1909-94) (noted for his later theories about Post Painterly Abstraction), Thomas Hess and Rosenberg, as well as the art historian Meyer Schapiro, were an integral part of this crowd. [See also John Canaday (1907-85) and Leo Steinberg (1920-2011.] Greenberg - writing chiefly for the Nation and Partisan Review - liked Hofmann's "laws" and attacked surrealism for reversing the anti-pictorial trend of cubism and abstract art. He criticized Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" (1944, MOMA) as wavering and awkward and denounced Kandinsky for his non-cubist picture space. Writing in the Nation in 1944, he admonished: "The extreme eclecticism now prevailing in art is unhealthy and it should be counteracted, even at the risk of dogmatism and intolerance." Though he seemed to want everyone to march in step, he often demonstrated a keen eye for formal quality.

Rosenberg came from a literary background and loved to defend intellectual values deep into the night. Like the existentialists he championed individuality and the unexpected and he felt genuine sympathy with the creative struggle of artists. Instead of laying down the law to artists, as Greenberg increasingly tried to do, Rosenberg, more than any other writer, entered into a dialog with them. By identifying closely with their work, Rosenberg successfully extended the issues they raised pictorially into the realm of words and at times caustically took them to task when he found their ideas ethically questionable or intellectually shallow. Both Rosenberg and Greenberg had their own creative agendas as writers, and neither can be taken as a spokesman for the artists' intentions. Hess provided a more objective account of the artists but probably influenced them and the scene less as a result. Schapiro's great contribution was as a teacher and friend whose eye the artists respected. Schapiro's lectures at Columbia, as Motherwell had pointed out, made art seem important and worthy of serious thought; as a friend, he talked with artists in their studios about their work and often introduced them to new ideas as well as to one another.

There was also much abstraction on the New York scene in the thirties and forties that had nothing to do with the motives behind the New York School, even though many artists had personal ties which crossed these boundaries. Burgoyne Diller, for example, took his inspiration from a formalistic reading of Mondrian and of the Parisian Abstraction-Creation group; yet in the early forties he was an important friend to Jackson Pollock. The classes of Hans Hofmann also turned out many formalistic abstract painters - indeed the hard core of geometric abstraction was a group founded in 1936 and called "The American Abstract Artists," more than half of whose organizers were former pupils of Hofmann's. Ad Reinhardt, who became a prophet of the sixties style of minimalism, was perhaps the most articulate and interesting member of this group.

Mark Tobey, who founded his abstract style on Zen Buddhism, had lived primarily in Seattle and Europe rather than New York. He was nevertheless a contemporary of the artists of the New York School and showed at the Willard Gallery alongside David Smith. Like them he reacted against the materialism of the burgeoning mass culture of the late forties. "We have occupied ourselves too much with the outer, the objective," he said, "at the expense of the inner world." Born in 1890 Tobey traveled to the Far East in the thirties where he studied Zen calligraphy in a Japanese monastery. During the forties he developed his so-called "white writing" and acquired a major international reputation.


By the 1950s the New York School was widely recognized as the leading edge of the international avant-garde and many younger artists adopted its stylistic grammar. But the starting-point of these second-generation artists tended to be an appreciation of the painterly quality of the abstract-expressionist brushstroke rather than existential motives of the sort that prompted the work of the artists of the New York School. In this sense the true heirs of the New York School were not the gestural painters of the fifties but the writers of the "beat" generation and the funk assemblagists, who metamorphosed the New York School's romantic imagery of the alienated genius into the militant social pariah, as exemplified by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Norman Mailer. By 1960 other movements with their own radical ideas had emerged, and the New York School had turned into a disparate handful of old masters. Nevertheless David Smith made some of his most innovative work between 1960 and 1965, and the late styles of Philip Guston (1913-80), de Kooning, Motherwell and his partner Helen Frankenthaler went on to break important new ground in the sixties and seventies. For more about such trends in contemporary art, see: Lyrical Abstraction and Hard Edge Painting.

Abstract expressionist works by members of the New York School can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.

The above article includes material from the book Art Since 1940 (Laurence King Publishing, 2000): an invaluable work for all students of 20th century visual art. We gratefully acknowledge the use of this material.

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